Matt Hancock warns UK 'don’t blow it’ as COVID cases rise
Public Health England is currently investigating the new strain, with scientists expected to provide results in around two weeks’ time.
Health Secretary Matt Hancock told MPs today that the number of cases involving the new variant is “increasing rapidly”, saying: “Initial analysis suggests that this variant is growing faster than the existing variants.
“We’ve currently identified over 1,000 cases with this variant predominantly in the south of England although cases have been identified in nearly 60 different local authority areas.”
Mr Hancock reassured that there was nothing to suggest the variant was more likely to cause serious disease and he suggested the vaccine should still be effective.
He said: “But it shows we’ve got to be vigilant and follow the rules and everyone needs to take personal responsibility not to spread this virus.”
What is a viral mutation?
Coronavirus is an RNA virus, which means it is a collection of genetic material packed inside a protein shell.
Once an RNA virus makes contact with a host, it will begin to make new copies of itself that can go on to infect other cells.
RNA viruses, like the flu, measles and indeed coronavirus, are more prone to changes and mutations compared with DNA viruses, such as herpes, smallpox, and human papillomavirus.
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What is a mutation? Are virus mutations normal?
According to GAVI, the Global Vaccine Allowance: “A mutation is simply a change in the virus’ genome: the set of genetic instructions that contain all the information that the virus needs to function.
“When the virus replicates, this set of instructions needs to be copied, but errors can creep in during this process.
“Depending on where in the genome mistakes occur, they can have a negative or positive impact on the virus’ ability to survive and replicate.
“Or, as is the case the majority of the time, they may have no impact at all.”
All viruses mutate, and coronavirus is not an exception.
Professor Wendy Barclay, head of the department of infectious disease, Imperial College London, said: “SARS-CoV-2 is an RNA virus and mutations are expected to occur as it replicates.
“It is essential that we understand the consequence of any changes in the genome of the virus – for example, how this might impact on disease, transmission and the immune response to the virus.
“Some variants with changes in the spike protein have already been observed as the virus is intensely sequenced here in the UK and around the world.
“There is no evidence that the newly-reported variant results in a more severe disease.
“This variant contains some mutations in spike protein that is the major target of vaccines, and it will be important to establish whether they impact vaccine efficacy by performing experiments in the coming weeks.”
Professor Jonathan Ball, Professor of Molecular Virology at Nottingham University, told the BBC: “The genetic information in many viruses can change very rapidly and sometimes these changes can benefit the virus – by allowing it to transmit more efficiently or to escape from vaccines or treatments – but many changes have no effect at all.
“Even though a new genetic variant of the virus has emerged and is spreading in many parts of the UK and across the world, this can happen purely by chance.”
Will this impact vaccines?
Professor Ball continued: “Therefore, it is important that we study any genetic changes as they occur, to work out if they are affecting how the virus behaves, and until we have done that important work it is premature to make any claims about the potential impacts of virus mutation.”
The health secretary has made it clear that currently there is no evidence that this particular new variant of coronavirus will not respond to approved vaccines.
Vaccinations currently available for coronavirus are based on the genetic blueprint that codes for the spike protein.
If the virus has mutated, changing that information, then there is a chance that the vaccine will be less effective – but this cannot be confirmed without further research.
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