By David Churchill
What happened to the coronavirus to raise such concerns?
A new strain of Covid has developed that is said to be spreading much faster. A "strain" is a new version of a virus that has genetic mutations. The new strain is a version of Sars-Cov-2, the coronavirus that causes Covid-19.
It was named VUI-202012/01. These letters and numbers stand for "investigated variant" and the month of December 2020.
What makes it so worrisome?
This special variant is defined by up to 17 changes or mutations in the coronavirus spike protein. It's the combination of some of these changes that scientists think could make it more contagious.
It is believed that they could help the virus' spike protein attach to human cells and gain easier access.
Is it certain that the new variant will accelerate the spread of the virus?
No, but scientists say preliminary evidence suggests it.
Boris Johnson said it can spread up to 70 percent easier than other strains of the virus, potentially increasing the "R-rate" – which measures how quickly the virus spreads – significantly.
On Saturday night, Mr Johnson said it could increase the "R-Rate" by up to 0.4.
This would be especially important in areas like east England where it is 1.4 and both London and the South East where it is 1.3. The & # 39; R rate & # 39; must stay below 1 for infections to decrease.
Is the new variant more dangerous?
Scientists don't believe that for the time being. When asked on Saturday night whether it was more deadly than the previous exposure, Chief Medical Officer Professor Chris Whitty said, "The answer seems to be 'no' as far as we can tell at the moment."
Dr. Public Health England's Susan Hopkins said yesterday that there was evidence that people with the new variant had higher viral loads.
But she said that didn't mean people were getting sick.
Ravi Gupta, Professor of Clinical Microbiology at the University of Cambridge, said, "People are unlikely to get sick, but it could make it difficult to control."
If the virus becomes difficult to control and hospitals are overrun, it could present new challenges.
Are mutations unusual?
Seasonal influenza mutates every year. Variants of Sars-Cov-2 have also been seen in other countries such as Spain.
However, one scientific paper suggests that the number and combination of changes that have occurred in this new variant may be "unprecedented".
It is believed that most of the mutations observed so far occurred more slowly. Most of the changes also don't affect how easily the virus spreads.
There are already around 4,000 mutations in the spike protein gene.
What caused the mutation?
This is still being investigated. One theory is that a growing natural immunity in the UK population, making the virus difficult to spread, may have forced it to adapt.
Another theory is that it developed in chronically ill patients who fought the virus for a long time and then passed it on to others.
Prof. Paul Hunter, professor of medicine at the University of East Anglia, said yesterday that this was "plausible" and "very likely".
However, he stressed that at the moment it is impossible to prove it.
What evidence is there to support the latter theory?
Some evidence of this was discovered when virus samples were collected from a Cambridge patient. They had been treated with convalescent plasma – blood plasma containing antibodies from a recovered patient.
It is possible that during this treatment the virus may mutate and develop more resistance to the antibodies. This patient died of the infection, but it is also possible that the mutation occurred elsewhere.
An article co-authored by Andrew Rambaut, Professor of Molecular Evolution at the University of Edinburgh, states: “When antibody therapy is administered after many weeks of chronic infection, the virus population can be unusually large and genetically diverse … which sets the stage for it the rapid fixation of multiple virus genetic changes. & # 39;
Professor Hunter added, "Mutations in viruses are a random event. The longer someone is infected, the more likely a random event is to occur."
What are these mutations doing?
Many occur in what is known as the "receptor binding domain" of the virus spike protein. This helps the virus attach to and gain access to human cells. The mutations make it easier for the virus to bind to the ACE2 receptors in human cells.
It's also possible that the changes help the virus avoid human antibodies, which would otherwise help fight off infection.
Who discovered it?
It was discovered by the Covid-19 Genomics UK (COG-UK) consortium, which is doing random genetic sequencing of positive Covid-19 samples.
It's a consortium made up of the four UK health authorities, the Wellcome Sanger Institute and 12 academic institutions.
How long has it been in the UK and where did it start?
There were more than 1,000 cases in nearly 60 different municipalities in mid-December, although the real number will be higher.
They were found predominantly in the south east of England, Kent and London. It can now make up 60 percent of the falls of the capital.
But it was discovered elsewhere, including Wales and Scotland.
The two earliest samples were collected in Kent on September 20th and in London the next day.
Why weren't measures taken earlier?
Because the potentially greater transferability was only discovered by scientists at the end of last week.
Was it discovered anywhere else in the world?
One aspect of the new variant, known as the N501Y mutation, was in circulation between June and July in Australia, in July in America, and as early as April in Brazil, according to scientists.
It is therefore unclear what role travelers carrying the virus may have played.
Dr. Julian Tang, virologist and respiratory research expert at the University of Leicester, said: "Whether these viruses were later brought to Britain and Europe by travelers or spontaneously appeared in several places around the world – in response to human host immune selection pressures – requires more Investigations. & # 39;
Another change, known as the D614G variant, has already been noted in Western Europe and North America. However, it is possible that the new variant developed in the UK.
What can I do to avoid the new variant?
As always, keep your distance from people, wash your hands regularly, wear a mask, and adhere to animal restrictions in your area.
Dr. Chaand Nagpaul, Chairman of the British Medical Association, said yesterday: “The way you control the spread of the virus, including this new variant, is exactly the same. The point is to continue strict measures. The same rules apply. & # 39;
Will the new variant reduce the effectiveness of vaccines?
More studies are needed.
Dr. Susan Hopkins of Public Health England said that until then, scientists cannot be sure whether and by how much the new variant will reduce the effectiveness of vaccines developed.
She said, "The vaccine induces a strong multiple response, immune response and therefore it is unlikely that this vaccine response will have completely disappeared." If mutations occur, it is theoretically possible that the antibodies produced by vaccines could be bypassed.
However, vaccines produce a variety of antibodies that attack the virus from different angles at the same time, making it difficult to evade them all at once.
Vaccines could also be tweaked to make them more effective if the new mutation proves more resistant to them.
What are the scientists doing now?
Scientists will grow the new strain in the laboratory to see how it reacts. This involves examining whether it elicits the same antibody response as it reacts to the vaccine and modeling the new strain.
It can take up to two weeks for this process to complete.
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