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New strain of COVID-19 - what do we know?

New strain of COVID-19 - what do we know?

As ever, the Coronavirus pandemic is a fast-moving situation and the events of the weekend have only demonstrated that further.

At the time of writing, travel to many countries from the UK is currently banned, as governments around the world try to respond to the new strain of COVID-19 that has been identified in the UK. New 'Tier 4' restrictions were implemented on Sunday for around 16 million people in England, while Wales has also gone into lockdown.

Here's a look at what we know about the new strain of the virus so far.

 

What is the new strain and when did it get noticed?

A new strain/variant of COVID-19 has shown up in genomic surveillance in the past two months containing 17 changes/mutations from the older strain of the virus. 

It is normal for viruses to evolve and change over time. Mutations are where viruses undergo (generally small) genetic changes. Such changes are not uncommon and can have different effects, positive and negative, or no effect at all.

Health Secretary Matt Hancock announced the new strain in a statement to MPs on Monday 14 December in the House of Commons. It is thought that the new strain started to be noticed as far back as September, though data had not raised concerns over it until recently. Since the announcement last Monday, more research has been done into the variant and over recent days it has become apparent that a significant percentage of the cases of COVID-19 that are being recorded are of the new variant, with the variant present across the UK.

 

What is different about the new strain and why is it concerning?

Mutations of the virus, particularly in the spike protein (labelled on the diagram below as 'S protein'), mean that the virus membrane may fuse easier with the host cell membrane. 

In more simple terms, the virus is perhaps more sticky and it is thought that you may need to come into contact with less of the virus in order to be infected by it. With the virus being more transmissible, it can spread faster and this is somewhat thought to be the cause of increased Coronavirus case rates in the UK over recent weeks.

 

Image Credit: CDC/ Alissa Eckert, MSMI; Dan Higgins, MAMS

 

Will people know if they have been infected by the new variant?

It is unlikely people will know whether they have been infected by the new variant, as opposed to the old variant of the virus.

Currently, there are not thought to be any different symptoms of the virus and it is not currently thought that the variant makes people anymore ill than the older variant.

Only some of the UK's testing laboratories can pick up the new variant and people are not being told which variant they have been infected by if they test positive as there is no major difference in the way they should act.

 

What new restrictions can be implemented to tackle the new variant and will existing measures still work?

Many new restrictions have been implemented over the weekend and the important thing is still about avoiding social contact with others.

The preventative measures for stopping the spread of Coronavirus, such as washing hands, covering your face and making space (physical distancing from others) still work and are more important now than ever before. Due to the new strain of the virus being more transmissible (easier to spread), it is extra important for people to wear masks, wash their hands and stay away from other people where possible.

There are of course questions over what measures can be expected in the coming weeks and months. Will schools be able to reopen after Christmas? When can I see my grandparents? And so on.

The situation is fast-moving and more measures are likely to be announced as new scientific evidence and advice becomes available. Until a significant percentage of the population can be protected by vaccines or until safer ways to meet others can be established, restrictions are likely to centre around limiting social contact where possible, though government ministers will be keen to balance the risk of the virus with other harms, such as on the economy and mental health.