The new coronavirus strain spreading in the UK has key mutations: scientists

LONDON: British scientists are trying to determine whether the rapid spread of a new variant of the virus that causes COVID-19 in southern England is linked to key mutations they detected in the strain, they said Tuesday.

The mutations include modifications to the important “spike” protein that the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus uses to infect human cells, a group of scientists monitoring the genetics of the virus said, but it’s still unclear whether these are making it worse. contagious. .

“Efforts are underway to confirm whether or not any of these mutations are contributing to increased transmission,” scientists from the COVID-19 Genomics UK (COG-UK) Consortium said in a statement. The new variant, which British scientists have called “VUI – 202012/01” includes a genetic mutation in the “spike” protein, which – in theory – could make COVID-19 spread more easily among people.

The British government on Monday cited an increase in new infections, which it believes may be partly linked to the new variant, as it moved its capital and many other areas into the highest level of COVID-19 restrictions. As of December 13, 1,108 cases of COVID-19 with the new variant had been identified, predominantly in the south and east of England, Public Health England said in a statement.

But there is currently no evidence that the variant is more likely to cause serious COVID-19 infections, the scientists said, or that it would make vaccines less effective. “Both questions call for further studies performed at a pace,” COG-UK scientists said.

Mutations, or genetic changes, arise naturally in all viruses, including SARS-CoV-2, as they replicate and circulate in human populations.

In the case of SARS-CoV-2, these mutations are piling up at a rate of about one or two mutations a month globally, according to COG-UK genetics specialists. “As a result of this ongoing process, many thousands of mutations have already emerged in the SARS-CoV-2 genome since the virus emerged in 2019,” they said.

Most of the mutations observed so far have had no apparent effect on the virus, and only a minority are likely to modify the virus significantly, for example by making it more capable of infecting people, more likely to cause serious disease, or less susceptible to natural or vaccine-induced immune defenses.

Susan Hopkins, a PHE medical consultant, said that “it is not unexpected that the virus will evolve and it is important to quickly identify any changes to understand the potential risk.” He said the new variant “is detected in a large geographic area, especially where an increase in cases are detected.”