By Kate Kelland
LONDON (Reuters) – British scientists are trying to determine whether the rapid spread in southern England of a new variant of the virus that causes COVID-19 is linked to key mutations they have detected in the strain, they said Tuesday.
The mutations include changes in the key “spike” protein that the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus uses to infect human cells, said a group of scientists monitoring the virus’s genetics, but it is not yet clear whether these make it more contagious. . .
“Efforts are underway to confirm whether or not any of these mutations contribute to increased transmission,” the COVID-19 Genomics UK (COG-UK) Consortium scientists said in a statement.
The new variant, which British scientists have dubbed “VUI – 202012/01”, involves a genetic mutation in the “spike” protein that – in theory – could cause COVID-19 to spread more easily between humans.
The UK government on Monday cited a rise in new infections, which it said could be in part related to the new variant, as it has moved the capital and many other areas to the highest level of COVID-19 restrictions.
On Dec. 13, 1,108 COVID-19 cases had been identified with the new variant, 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 likely to cause serious COVID-19 infections, the scientists said, or that it would make vaccines less effective.
“Both questions require further studies to be conducted at a rapid pace,” said the COG-UK scientists.
Mutations, or genetic changes, occur naturally in all viruses, including SARS-CoV-2, as they replicate and circulate in human populations.
In the case of SARS-CoV-2, these mutations accumulate at a rate of about one to two mutations per month worldwide, according to COG-UK genetics specialists.
“As a result of this ongoing process, many thousands of mutations have emerged in the SARS-CoV-2 genome since the virus emerged in 2019,” they said.
Most of the mutations observed so far have had no apparent effect on the virus, and only a minority are likely to alter the virus in any significant way – for example, by making it more capable of infecting humans, making it more likely that it causes severe disease, or is less susceptible to natural or vaccine-induced immune defenses.
Susan Hopkins, a PHE medical adviser, said it is “not unexpected for the virus to develop and it is important that we spot any changes quickly to understand the potential risk.”
She said the new variant “is being detected in a wide area, especially where more cases are being detected.”
(Reporting by Kate Kelland; edited by Philippa Fletcher)