The mutations include changes to the important “sting” protein that the coronary virus SARS-CoV-2 uses to infect human cells, said a group of scientists tracking the virus’s genetics, but it’s not yet clear if 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”, includes a genetic mutation in the “spike” protein that – theoretically – could result in COVID-19 spreading 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 highest limit of COVID-19. As of December 13, 1,108 cases of COVID-19 with the new variant have been identified, mainly in the south and east of England, public health England said in a statement.
But at present there is no evidence that the variant is more likely to cause severe COVID-19 infections, the scientists said, or that it would decrease vaccines. “Both questions require further studies done 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.”