British scientists are trying to ascertain whether the rapid spread in southern England of a new variant of the virus that causes Covid-19 is linked to key mutations they detected in the strain, they said on Tuesday.
The mutations include changes to the important “spike” protein that the coronary virus SARS-CoV-2 uses to infect human cells, said a group of scientists tracing the genetics of the virus, but it is not yet clear whether these make it more infectious. . .
“Efforts are being confirmed as to whether or not any of these mutations contribute 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”, contains a genetic mutation in the “spike” protein that – theoretically – could result in the spread of Covid-19 more easily among humans.
The British government on Monday cited an increase in new infections, which it said may be partly linked to the new variant as it moved its capital and many other regions into the upper limit of Covid-19.
As of Dec. 13, 1,108 cases of Covid-19 with the new variant had been identified, mainly 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 severe infections with Covid-19, the scientists said, or that it will decrease the effectiveness of vaccines.
“Both questions call for further studies to be conducted quickly,” the COG-UK scientists said.
Mutations, or genetic changes, occur naturally in all viruses, including SARS-CoV-2, as they reproduce and circulate in human populations.
In the case of SARS-CoV-2, these mutations accumulate at a rate of about one or two mutations per month worldwide, according to COG-UK genetics specialists.
“As a result of this ongoing process, many thousands of mutations have already appeared in the SARS-CoV-2 genome since the virus appeared in 2019,” they said.
The majority of the mutations seen so far have had no apparent effect on the virus, and only a minority are likely to change the virus in any significant way – for example, more likely to infect humans, more likely to cause severe disease, or less susceptible to natural or vaccine-induced immune defenses.
Susan Hopkins, PHE’s medical advisor, said that “it’s not unexpected that the virus develops, and it’s important that we quickly notice any changes to understand the potential risk.”
She said the new variant “is detected in a wide geography, especially where more cases are detected.”
(This story was published by a wireless agency without modifications to the text. Only the headline was changed.)
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