Explained: New COVID-19 Variant in UK & What It Means for Vaccines

Are virus mutations normal? Will the new strain discovered in the UK make our current vaccines redundant?


Video Editor: Ashutosh Bharadwaj

The news of a recently identified and possibly more contagious variant of the coronavirus discovered in the United Kingdom has raised alarm across the world, leading to lockdown in parts of England and travel restrictions imposed by several countries, including India.

The variant is believed to have been first detected in September. By November, around a quarter of cases in London were of the new variant. By mid December, the proportion reached two-thirds of the total infections, and over the last one week, the number of cases in London doubled, with at least 60 percent of the infections being from this strain.

Health Secretary Matt Hancock cautioned that the variant was ‘out of control’, while Prime Minister Boris Johnson said that the new variant ‘may be up to 70 percent more transmissible’.

The world is concerned, Christmas is ‘cancelled’ and people want to know: What does this mean for the COVID-19 pandemic? Are mutations normal? Will this make our current vaccines redundant?

FIT explains.


Viruses and Mutations

Dr Jacob T John, a veteran virologist had told FIT in an interview, “The novel coronavirus is a single-stranded RNA virus. Mutating is the rule for such viruses, not the exception.”

A mutation refers to a change in a virus’ genetic sequence. It is important to remember that viruses mutate all the time. The error-prone replication process makes these mutations a part of the virus’ life cycle and evolution.

According to a report by The Guardian, Dr Muge Cevik, a member of the government’s New and Emerging Respiratory Virus Threats Advisory Group (Nervtag), said that more than 4,000 Sars-Cov-2 mutations had been observed so far, of which maybe a handful appeared to be of any significance.

There is a simple rule for understanding new variants: Ask whether the behaviour of the virus has changed.

In the majority of the cases, viral mutations hardly have any impact on the way the virus affects individuals. In fact, in many cases, the mutation could actually make a virus less potent, as FIT had earlier explained. But in certain instances, a mutation could offer the virus an advantage - which may be what is happening in the United Kingdom. This would ensure that the viruses that do have these mutations (or combinations of mutations) would increase in number by natural selection, given the right epidemiological environment, as described in an article published in The Conversation.

“Many mutations mean nothing at all, or at least are more successful for reasons we don’t know. For instance a different strain may be more transmissible, but cause less disease. Bottom line is that we need to monitor, but at present, there is no evidence that the new strain in UK is more transmissible nor severe nor resistant to treatment or vaccination.”
Dr Marc-Alain Widdowson, Director of Institute of Tropical Medicine, Antwerp, told The Indian Express

To alter the way the virus infects and causes disease in people, there would have to be a major change in its protein structure.

Should We Be Worried About the UK Variant?

The new variant is named VUI-202012/01 (the first “Variant Under Investigation” in December 2020) and is defined by about 20 mutations. Changes in this part of spike protein may, in theory, result in the virus becoming more infectious and spreading more easily between people.

Notably, many of the mutations observed in the UK variant have been seen earlier during the pandemic. Yet, the UK variant is defined by an unusual number and combination of mutations.

According to a BBC report, three factors are causing concern over the new variant of COVID-19:

  • It is said to spread faster than the other versions – 70 percent more infectious
  • It is the most common version of the virus in the UK
  • There have been changes to the spike protein of the virus, which plays a key role in unlocking the doorway to the body's cells

Dr Gagandeep Kang, Professor at Christian Medical College, Vellore, was quoted by The Indian Express as saying, “It is the coronavirus spike protein that binds to a human protein to initiate the process of infection. So, changes here could possibly affect how the virus behaves in terms of its ability to infect, or cause severe disease, or escape the immune response made by vaccines — but these are theoretical concerns at the moment.”

Speaking to FIT, Dr Shahid Jameel, Virologist and Director, Trivedi School of Biosciences at Ashoka University, said,

“Yes, it is a new variant that has emerged, which seems to be spreading quite fast in the UK and a few other European countries, Australia and South Africa. We should be concerned, but we should not worried.”
Dr Shahid Jameel

This isn’t the first time that changes in the spike region of the virus have been observed. What’s different here is the rising prevalence of this variant in the UK - even though we do not have sufficient data to suggest the mutation spreads faster or affects disease severity. The fear surrounding the new variant is based on preliminary data and modelling.

The chief medical officer for England, Chris Whitty, has said,

“Although the results depend on the quality and quantity of data you feed it, this appears to be an important variant based on genetic data – it is potentially more transmissible but we don’t know how much and we don’t have absolute certainty … Right now, we can’t make a causal relationship, it’s only an association effect.”
Chris Whitty

The variant was associated with 10% to 15% of cases in certain areas a few weeks ago, but last week it jumped to roughly 60% of cases in London, Whitty added.

Importantly, the higher prevalence of a variant among a set of people may not have to do with its strength or virulence, but could just be a function of other factors such as human behaviour, as was observed in South Africa. Definite lab experiments would be needed to determine the transmissibility of the new variant and the risks (if any) it poses. For now, experts believe there is good reason to be cautious.


Is this Variant More Dangerous?

in a report by The Guardian, Chris Whitty also stated clearly that there was no evidence to date that this variant alters disease severity, either in terms of mortality or the seriousness of the cases of COVID-19 for those infected. Investigation on these factors is still ongoing.

However, the increase in the rate of transmission means more people could get infected than before and this leads to an added burden on an already strained healthcare system, with more people needing hospital treatment.

Susan Hopkins, joint medical adviser for NHS Test and Trace and Public Health England, said,

“There is currently no evidence that this strain causes more severe illness, although it is being detected in a wide geography, especially where there are increased cases being detected.”
Susan Hopkins

The variants of the novel coronavirus are genetically similar to each other, which is why scientists do not expect these to have a major impact on their ability to cause more severe illness than what is known, Prof Arindam Maitra of the National Institute of Biomedical Genomics told The Indian Express.

Will the Current Vaccines Work Against the New Variant?

The news of the new variant is still emerging, but so far, UK Health Secretary Matt Hancock believes the regular COVID vaccines would still be useful.

He said there was “nothing to suggest” it caused worse disease or that vaccines would no longer work.

The new variant has mutations to the spike protein that leading vaccine candidates are targeting. However, vaccines produce antibodies against many regions in the spike protein, so it’s unlikely that this change would make the vaccine less effective.

Sharon Peacock, director of COG-UK, told the Science Media Centre briefing, “With this variant, there is no evidence that it will evade the vaccination or a human immune response. But if there is an instance of vaccine failure or reinfection then that case should be treated as high priority for genetic sequencing.”

In conversation with FIT, Dr Jameel said,

“The good news is that these mutations are not going to affect the vaccines that are being developed. But it comes as a note of caution, because viruses are continuously mutating, and when there is a selection pressure on viruses from the vaccines, we may also see other variants emerging in the future that may escape vaccines. The one identified in the UK is not one such variant.”
Dr Shahid Jameel

“But this does suggest that this is a possibility in the future, and to detect these mutations in time, surveillance would have to be sped up. Most importantly, every other precaution that we have been taking before the vaccine should still be followed,” he added.

Kartik Chandran, a virologist at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York, spoke to The New York Times about the body’s immune system, and how its defences make for a more formidable adversary than the mutating virus. “The fact is that you have a thousand big guns pointed at the virus. No matter how the virus twists and weaves, it’s not that easy to find a genetic solution that can really combat all these different antibody specificities, not to mention the other arms of the immune response.”

In general, it is hard for viruses to escape from the immune system. Even the ones that are able to do this quicker, like influenza, would need five to seven years.

But these are things we are yet to know about the novel coronavirus, which is why constant tracking of the virus and its mutations remains crucial in our fight against the pandemic and the final effectiveness of vaccines.

Fortunately, the mRNA technology used in the Pfizer and Moderna vaccine candidates is easier to update than the ways in which conventional vaccines are made. Still, it would probably be years before this would be needed, if at all.

“These are useful pokes for scientists and governments to get systems in place — now, before we might need them, especially as we start vaccinating people,” Dr Emma Hodcroft, a molecular epidemiologist at the University of Bern in Switzerland, told the NYT. “But the public should not necessarily be panicking.”


Where Else Has the Variant Been Reported? Has It Been Found in India?

While the variant is found across UK, it is heavily concentrated in London and South East England.

BBC, quoting data from Nextstrain, has reported that viral samples around the world suggest that cases in Denmark, Netherlands, and Australia have come from the UK.

Dr Rakesh Mishra, Director, CISR-Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology (CCMB), Hyderabad, told The Indian Express, “We have not seen this variant in India. But we are watching out for mutations as they are constantly happening. For the moment, it is not something to be worried about and is restricted to a few countries.”

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