New strain of COVID-19 – should we worry?

Across the UK right now, there’s a mutual enemy amongst us all, and it goes by the name of COVID-19. If having one enemy wasn’t enough, this weekend we were introduced to its friend – a new variant of the virus. The new variant has been blamed for causing havoc amongst London and the South East of England, ruining the Christmas holiday plans of millions and the border closures of over 40 countries and counting.

So, what exactly is the new strain?

The new variant of COVID-19 has been named VUI-202012/01 and is defined by a set of 17 changes of mutations. A virus mutating isn’t new news, we already know that viruses mutate, and that the behaviour of a virus can change for better or for worse so why is this said to be particularly “worrying?”

The new variant, which is suspected to have emerged in September has been causing particular concern due to the suspected increase in transmission. The government reports that evidence currently shows that “infection rates in geographical areas where this particular variant has been circulating have increased faster than expected and this variant has a higher transmission rate than other variants in current circulation.”

One thing to remember is that this has happened before. Since the first case of COVID-19 was identified in Wuhan, China there have been numerous mutations identified. Including A222V which was identified in Europe during the summer and was linked to holidays to Spain.

Is the new variant more dangerous?

The current messaging from the government is that “there is no evidence that it is more likely to cause severe disease or mortality – but we continue to study cases to understand this better.” There is ongoing research at Public Health England’s laboratory, Porton Down, to find any evidence that the new variant increases or decreases the severity of the disease.

Will the new variant affect the vaccine?

A few weeks ago, we became the first country to administer the Pfizer vaccine, since then over 130,000 people have been vaccinated against COVID-19 in the UK.

Since the announcement of the new strain people have expressed their concerns regarding the vaccine. At the moment, there is currently “no evidence to suggest that the Pfizer vaccine would not protect people against the new variant. Further laboratory work is currently being undertaken as a priority to understand this.”

For further reassurance, the BMJ have reported that “the new variant has mutations to the spike proteins that the three leading vaccines are targeting. However, vaccines produce antibodies against many regions in the spike protein, so it’s unlikely that a single change would make the vaccine less effective.

“Over time, as more mutations occur, the vaccine may need to be altered. This happens with season flu, which mutates every year, and the vaccine is adjusted accordingly.”

Can PCR tests detect the new variant?

It is believed that the polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test will still test positive for the new variant of the virus.
Further to this, the government has said that “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.”

It’s also important to remember that if the PCR tests didn’t detect the new variant, we wouldn’t have known about the high increase in cases testing positive as the testing methods used by the NHS have remained the same.

What happens now?

The recent announcement was the last news any of us wanted to receive at the end of a turbulent year. Many of us will be entering the new year in lockdown and with uncertainty. But it’s important to remember that it’s still the same virus, which means the methods to prevent transmission are the same. And if there’s one thing we’ve gotten good at this year, it’s wearing a mask, washing our hands and social distancing.

Of course, none of us want these to be long-term requirements but at the moment there is no evidence to suggest that the new variant will have a lasting effect on the battle against our enemy – COVID-19.