A new coronavirus variant is spreading in the U.K., but its significance is unclear

Laura Ramirez
·Reporter/Producer
·4-min read

News about a new coronavirus variant that was identified in Britain made headlines this week, raising concerns that the virus is mutating in a way that could possibly make it more infectious.

In a speech to the House of Commons on Monday, British Health Secretary Matt Hancock announced that the new variant was identified in more than 1,000 confirmed coronavirus infections in southeast England, where cases have been on the rise. Hancock said initial analysis suggests this variant may be more transmissible than other existing variants, and that it could possibly explain what is driving the current surge in that region of the country. However, both of these things remain unclear, and further studies are needed to understand the significance of this new mutation.

There have already been a number of new coronavirus strains identified since the start of the pandemic.

“The very first [COVID-19] viruses that emerged almost a year ago now are not the viruses that are circulating really almost in any country. There are different variants that have taken hold,” said Dr. Neville Sanjana, a geneticist at the New York Genome Center and New York University.

The word “mutation” conjures fears that the virus may be transforming into something more dangerous, but mutations are a natural process in a virus’s life cycle.

“They do mutate and change during their time in hosts; they don’t stay the same ... it’s part of the kind of molecular arms race between viruses and their hosts,” Sanjana added.

These changes, however, are not always significant, or harmful. Viruses can also become less deadly over time as a result of mutations.

Sanjana says most coronavirus variants that have been identified so far have not had a detectable effect on the biology of the virus or led to more severe COVID-19 disease.

There is an exception, a mutation of the virus that occurred early in the pandemic, which Sanjana has studied in his lab. The mutation, known as the D614G or the G variant, made a difference, he says. It occurred on the spike protein, the pointy structure that gives the coronavirus its crownlike profile, and the key that allows it to enter human cells. Although no evidence indicates that the D614G mutation causes more severe symptoms or deaths, research suggests that it makes it easier for the virus to infect cells and spread more easily from person to person. Some scientists believe that this variant, which was first spotted in eastern China in January and then spread quickly throughout Europe and New York City, made the pandemic more difficult to stop.

The new coronavirus variant that British officials warned about this week raised some concerns because the mutations found in the variant also affect the spike protein, which is the target of many leading vaccines currently deployed and in development.

This particular detail raised one important question: Could it potentially reduce the effectiveness of the vaccines?

Hancock says there is currently no evidence that suggests the new coronavirus variant is more dangerous, and that it is “highly unlikely” the new mutation will affect the efficacy of the vaccines.

Sanjana agreed.

“I think there’s really not too much cause for concern, because it’s important to realize that these mRNA [messenger RNA] vaccines don’t actually use one little piece of spike. They actually encode the entire spike protein, as RNA, and so this gives your immune system many shots on goal. There are many chances for it to develop a diverse antibody repertoire. So it’s really unlikely that any single mutation in the virus is going to be able to affect antibody responses,” he said.

It is too early to tell what the potential impacts of this particular variant are. Dr. Jeremy Farrar, director of the Wellcome Trust biomedical research foundation in London, said in a statement on Monday that this could be “potentially serious” and that because there’s a lot we don’t know yet about COVID-19, surveillance and research must continue to stay ahead of the virus. “There is no room for complacency. We have to remain humble and be prepared to adapt and respond to new and continued challenges as we move into 2021,” he said.

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