A new variant of COVID-19 has been identified in England

Dec. 21, 2020

A new strain of COVID-19 that transmits more rapidly than the previous variant has been identified, but there is no evidence that it is more likely to cause severe disease or mortality, according to research from Public Health England (PHE). 

The strain was identified due to PHE proactive and enhanced monitoring following the increase in cases seen in Kent and London. The variant has been named ‘VUI – 202012/01’ (the first Variant Under Investigation in December 2020). As of December 13, 1,108 cases with this variant have been identified, predominantly in the South and East of England. 

PHE is working with partners to investigate and plans to share its findings over the next two weeks. There is currently no evidence to suggest that the strain has any impact on disease severity, antibody response or vaccine efficacy. 

Data from Whole Genome Sequencing, epidemiology and modelling suggest the new variant ‘VUI – 202012/01’ (the first Variant Under Investigation in December 2020) transmits more easily than other strains. PHE currently has no evidence that the variant is more likely to cause severe disease or mortality – but they are continuing investigations to understand this better. The way to control this virus is the same, whatever the variant. It will not spread if we avoid close contact with others. Wash your hands, wear a mask, keep your distance from others, and reduce your social contacts. 

Mutations in the spike protein, the part of the virus that makes it infectious, can change how the virus interacts with human cells. However, we do not yet know the mechanism for this increase in transmission. Changes in this part of the spike protein may result in the virus becoming more infectious and spreading more easily between people. 

The evidence shows that infection rates in geographical areas where this particular strain has been circulating have increased faster than expected, and the modelling evidence has demonstrated that this variant has a higher transmission rate than other variants in current circulation. 

All viruses mutate over time and new variants emerge regularly. Backwards tracing using the genetic evidence suggests this variant emerged in September 2020 and then circulated at very low levels in the population until mid-November. 

The increase in cases linked to the new variant first came to light in late November when PHE was investigating why infection rates in Kent were not falling despite national restrictions. We then discovered a cluster linked to this variant spreading rapidly into London and Essex. Evidence of increased transmissibility was provided to NERVTAG and ministers on December 18. 

There is currently no evidence to suggest that the Pfizer vaccine would not protect people against the new strain. Further laboratory work is currently being undertaken as a priority to understand this. Labs have been issued with guidance to adapt processes to ensure that PCR tests can detect this variant. PCR tests can be adapted rapidly to respond to the new variant. 

High numbers of cases of the variant virus have been observed in some areas where there is also a high incidence of COVID-19. It is not yet known whether the variant is responsible for these increased numbers of cases. PHE will monitor the impact of this in the coming days and weeks. It is not uncommon for viruses to undergo mutations; seasonal influenza mutates every year. Variants of SARS-CoV-2 have been observed in other countries, such as Spain. 

The recommended control measures to limit the spread of the new variant continue to be testing, following the existing guidance and abiding by the restrictions, including ‘Hands, Face, Space’ and limiting your number of contacts. 

Gov.UK has the report. 



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