When the coronavirus runs rampant, mutations and new strains are more likely, experts say. That may be what happened in the UK.

London coronavirus face mask
A woman stands a crosswalk in London, England, on October 15, 2020.

The surest way to boost the chances of a worrisome coronavirus mutation: let it spread unchecked.

“More infected people means more opportunity for the development of mutations. More movement of people … means new variants can spread faster,” Dr. Shira Dohon, an infectious-disease specialist at Tufts Medical Center, told Business Insider.  

When viruses infect a body, they replicate. More spread means more replication, which raises the likelihood of genetic errors. So in places where transmission is high, we are more likely to see a harmful variant emerge, experts say.

That may be what happened in the UK.

Earlier this month, UK Health Secretary Matt Hancock announced that a new coronavirus strain was responsible for an uptick in cases in the south of England. The variant quickly overtook all other versions of the virus in the country, he said. By December 9, six out of every 10 coronavirus cases in the UK were the new variant, which government leaders suggested may be 70% more infectious than its predecessors. 

UK researchers first detected the variant three months ago, after a second wave of infections started on the heels of a summer of indoor dining, drinking, and exercising. The variant was found just week’s after the UK reported 2,988 cases on September 6 – its highest daily record since late May.

Until just last week, London was in the second-lightest tier of coronavirus lockdowns, which allowed pubs to remain open and limited spectators at sporting events and performances. 

“Virus mutations can only accumulate if the virus is allowed to be transmitted. So the longer that we allow uncontrolled transmission to occur, the more chances that the virus will have to adapt to human transmission,” Nathan Grubaugh, an epidemiologist at the Yale School of Medicine, told Business Insider.

Why the UK coronavirus strain is concerning

Boris Johnson
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson addresses the nation, December 11, 2020.

Countless versions of the coronavirus are circulating, each separated by a handful of tiny changes in its genetic code. The virus typically accumulates two mutations a month, many of which “have no real public-health impact,” Grubaugh said.

Most of the mutations don’t affect the virus’s infectiousness or deadliness, according to Lucy van Dorp, a researcher at University College London’s Genetics Institute.

But every so often, she told Business Insider, “a mutation, or combination of mutations, can arise which confers an advantage to the virus in some way.”

That may be the case with the new UK strain, which geneticists have named B.1.1.7. It collected at least 17 mutations at once. Experts believe the strain could have emerged in a patient who was infected for a long time, allowing the virus to mutate in their body, Science magazine reported.

Some of the strain’s mutations affect the virus’ spike protein, which it uses to invade cells. That could make it easier for the virus to infect people.

coronavirus molecules
An illustration of the new coronavirus, SARS-CoV-2, which causes COVID-19.

Not all scientists agree that the new strain is 70% more infectious, though Grubaugh said existing data suggest it “is associated with increased transmission.”

Indeed, 236,275 people tested positive for COVID-19 in the UK between December 17 and 23 – a 61% increase from the week before. The number of daily new cases has doubled in the last two weeks, to almost 40,000 per day. A couple of hotspots have more than 1,100 cases per 100,000 residents. Between mid-November and December 9, the variant jumped from being responsible for 28% of London’s cases to 62%.

South Africa, too, is dealing with a new coronavirus strain that appears to be more transmissible and shares one mutation related to the spike protein with the UK strain.

Neither of these strains, however, seem to be more deadly. And virologists don’t think the mutations threaten the efficacy of vaccines – they should still work.

‘The more replication, the more opportunities for evolution’

london coronavirus lockdown
Masked travelers on a London Underground platform, September 24, 2020.

From June to September, the entire UK was put in the middle tier of its COVID alert level system. Restrictions were eased: Bars and gyms opened in July, and more than 100 million discounted meals were served to indoor diners in August via the government’s Eat Out to Help Out plan to stimulate the restaurant sector.

But that reopening may have happened too quickly. One researcher estimated Eat Out to Help Out was linked to almost 20% of all new UK infection clusters in August. London, where new daily cases were in the dozens in July, saw that figure spike to more than 1,000 by the start of October. Summer days with record lows of just 400 to 500 new cases in the UK gave way to daily fall totals of 4,000 to 5,000 new infections.

“The more replication, the more opportunities for evolution and adaptation,” Richard Neher, an epidemiologist tracking coronavirus strains with the Nextstrain project, told Business Insider.

Neher added, though, that since it’s hard to predict what prompts a virus to evolve and when particular mutations will arise, “the chance of this happening might not be exactly proportional to the number of cases.”

The new variant shouldn’t be blamed for all the spread

The new variant has an increased reproductive, or R0, value – the average number of people one sick person infects – of 1.5 rather than 1.1, the World Health Organization announced Monday. That difference of 0.4 means 100 sick people will infect another 150, not 110, on average. 

“However, that does not mean that it is responsible for the rising cases in London and the surrounding area,” Dohon said. She and Grubaugh both emphasized that human behavior and mitigation measures play a big role, too. 

“If we have a higher proportion of the population that distances and wears masks, it will stop the virus, variant or not,” Grubaugh said.

UK Tier 4 Lockdown Travel
Passengers wait in line at London’s Heathrow Airport amid the city’s tier 4 lockdown on December 22, 2020.

Indeed, CDC noted that although a variant may dominate a geographic area, “that fact alone does not mean that the variant is more infectious.” A strain could just get lucky, arising by chance in populous areas at the time when a government relaxes restrictions.

These same questions emerged after a different variant of the virus was detected earlier in the pandemic. That strain also has a mutation affecting the spike protein. It’s predominantly the version that spread in Europe and North America last winter, and it’s now more prevalent worldwide than the original virus that emerged in China. Some evidence suggests the strain is more infectious, but it might also have just hit the US and Europe at a moment when testing was limited and lockdowns hadn’t yet been implemented.

‘Variants rarely stay a local problem’

UK coronavirus
A sign on England’s M56 motorway informs drivers that all routes into France are closed on December 21, 2020.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson placed 16 million people in southeastern England under a tier 4 lockdown, the UK’s strictest, on Saturday. Soon after, at least 27 countries have blocked travel from the UK.

But it’s already too late.

“Variants rarely stay a local problem,” Neher said.

Genetics data reveal the strain is present in Scotland and Wales, as well as Denmark, Belgium, Iceland, and the Netherlands. There are a handful of cases in Italy, Australia, Gibraltar, and Singapore, too. Grubaugh said it hasn’t been found in the US yet.

But that may be because US keeps tabs on the genetics of far fewer coronavirus samples than the UK and South Africa do. Only 51,000 of the 17 million US cases have been genetically sequenced, so “the mutation could be more widespread and we just don’t know it,” Grubaugh said.

Van Dorp thinks that’s likely, as does Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. Fauci told PBS NewsHour on Monday that he “would not be surprised” if the UK strain is already in the US.

“When we start to look for it, we’re going to find it,” he said.

That reality leaves only one real option, Grubaugh said: “If a country is worried about the new variant being introduced and causing increased local transmission, a more effective plan is to put measures in place to decrease local transmission.”

London UK coronavirus
People on the London Underground on September 25, 2020.

He added that his won’t be the last time we learn of a new, potentially more infectious strain.

“Have there been others? Possibly, and maybe they didn’t perpetuate for some reason,” he said. “Will there be others in the future? Likely.”

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UK Health Secretary Matt Hancock says a new coronavirus strain may be spreading faster than the original, but scientists aren’t so sure

Matt Hancock
UK Health Secretary Matt Hancock.

  • A new coronavirus strain may be fueling new spread in southern England, according to UK Health Secretary Matt Hancock.
  • “Initial analysis suggests this variant is growing faster than the existing variants,” Hancock said on Monday.
  • But many scientists are urging calm, since new strains aren’t necessarily more dangerous or contagious than the original.
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

A new coronavirus strain may be fueling an uptick in spread across the southern UK, according to Health Secretary Matt Hancock.

“Over the last few days, thanks to our world-class genomic capability in the UK, we have identified a new variant of coronavirus, which may be associated with the faster spread in the South of England,” Hancock said Monday, speaking in the House of Commons. He pointed to “very sharp exponential rises in the virus across London, Kent, parts of Essex, and Hertfordshire.”

Hancock added that there’s no evidence to suggest this new strain is more deadly or resistant to vaccines. But it could be more transmissible, he said: “Initial analysis suggests this variant is growing faster than the existing variants.”

Hancock said that at least 60 different local authorities had seen infections from the variant, the World Health Organization had been notified, and UK scientists were doing detailed studies, according to the BBC. He did not publicly provide any further data about the variant, however.

London and large parts of Southern England will be placed into “tier 3,” the strictest level of lockdown, from midnight on Tuesday, Hancock said. That means roughly 34 million British people are now in tier 3 areas, in which pubs and restaurants are closed.

However, scientists are urging calm until more is known about the coronavirus variant Hancock mentioned.

“It is incredibly frustrating to have such a statement made without any associated evidence,” Lucy van Dorp, a geneticist studying the coronavirus’ genome, told Business Insider, adding that it’s unlikely that one mutation would play a big role in changing disease severity for a virus.

‘It’s too early to be worried’ by this new variant

FILE PHOTO: The ultrastructural morphology exhibited by the 2019 Novel Coronavirus (2019-nCoV), which was identified as the cause of an outbreak of respiratory illness first detected in Wuhan, China, is seen in an illustration released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in Atlanta, Georgia, U.S. January 29, 2020. Alissa Eckert, MS; Dan Higgins, MAM/CDC/Handout via REUTERS
An illustration of the new coronavirus.

Like all viruses, the coronavirus mutates over time. So scientists have been regularly collecting samples of the coronavirus sine the beginning of the pandemic and genetically sequencing them to track how it changes.

“That’s normal. That’s how viruses work,” Emma Hodcroft, a geneticist studying the coronavirus’ genome in Basel Switzerland, previously told Business Insider.

According to Alan McNally, a professor of genomics at the University of Birmingham, testing labs across the UK “picked up” the new variant in the last few weeks.
“It is important to keep a calm and rational perspective on the strain as this is normal virus evolution and we expect new variants to come and go and emerge over time,” he said in a statement to UK’s Science Media Centre. “It’s too early to be worried or not by this new variant, but I am in awe of the surveillance efforts in the UK that allowed this to be picked up so fast.”

The variant includes a mutation in the virus’ spike protein, called N501Y. That spike is what the coronavirus uses to invade our cells, so it’s possible a tweak there could make it easier for the virus to infect our bodies.

“Efforts are under way to confirm whether or not any of these mutations are contributing to increased transmission,” the COVID-19 Genomics UK Consortium, the group that identified the variant, said in a statement.

“There is currently no evidence that this variant (or any other studied to date) has any impact on disease severity, or that it will render vaccines less effective,” it added.

Mutations don’t necessarily impact a virus’ behavior

Other scientists are similarly hesitant to make conclusions based on the news of this new variant.

“There is no evidence that the newly reported variant results in a more severe disease,” Wendy Barclay, head of the Department of Infectious Disease at Imperial College London, said in a Science Media Centre statement on Monday. 

Hodcroft said that most mutations her team has seen so far are harmless, and the coronavirus is mutating slowly. There is one variant, called 614G, that might be more transmissible than the original virus, she added, but that question is not settled. 

coronavirus uk
Police officers during a protest against lockdown restrictions outside the Senedd Cymru Welsh Parliament in Cardiff Bay.

Jonathan Ball, a molecular virologist at the University of Nottingham, struck a cautious tone in his own statement to the Science Media Center.

“The genetic information in many viruses can change very rapidly and sometimes these changes can benefit the virus – by allowing it to transmit more efficiently or to escape from vaccines or treatments – but many changes have no effect at all,” he said. 

Ball added: “Even though a new genetic variant of the virus has emerged and is spreading in many parts of the UK and across the world, this can happen purely by chance. Therefore, it is important that we study any genetic changes as they occur, to work out if they are affecting how the virus behaves.”

This story has been updated with additional information. It was originally published on December 14, 2020 at 10:02 a.m.

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