Matt Hancock reveals discovery of new coronavirus variant
A new coronavirus variant has been found and is growing faster in some regions of England than others. Health Secretary Matt Hancock revealed today Covid-19 is rapidly rising in parts of southern England as a result of the new virus strain. But is the new Covid variant more dangerous than the original virus?
A Covid-19 variant is believed to be the driving force behind a rapid surge in infections across South East England.
Mr Hancock said at least 60 different local authorities have recorded the infection caused by the new variant.
At least 1,000 people have been recorded as having the Covid-19 infection caused by the new variant.
Initial analysis suggests the new strain is growing much faster than existing variants, predominantly in the south.
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Speaking from Downing Street, Mr Hancock said: “I can tell you that because of the testing and surveillance systems that we built, we’ve also identified a new variant of this virus which may be associated with the faster spread in some areas.
“We deal with this variant just like we do with all the others and this underlines how important it is for us to be vigilant.”
He added: “This rise in transmission – as well as the new variant of Covid – should be a warning to us all that – even after such a difficult year – we must stay vigilant.
“People of all ages can spread this disease and around one in three people don’t display any symptoms at all. But can still spread it.
“We should never lose sight of our own role in this – our personal responsibility.”
Is the new Covid variant more dangerous?
Mutations are not necessarily a bad thing.
Every virus mutates because when it makes contact with a host, it makes new copies of itself which can infect other cells.
RNA viruses are more prone to slight changes happening, as copies are made and in some cases, mutations can make viruses even weaker.
Sometimes these variants make the virus more infectious and can cause more serious illness.
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England’s Chief Medical Officer Professor Chris Whitty told the press conference there was “no evidence” the variant is any more dangerous than the original virus.
He said: “In terms of the variant, the reason this has been picked up is because of a good surveillance system in the UK, wider than other countries.
“It does seem to be in parts of the UK, especially Kent and bits of London which are increasing rapidly.
“Now we don’t know cause and effect – is it getting more frequent because it is in a part of the country in which the rate of increase is going faster anyway and therefore inevitably it is in a higher proportion or is it that this virus variant transmits more easily?
“As yet the answer is not yet clear.”
Professor Whitty also spoke about the areas of concern when it comes to new variants.
He said: “There are three things you want to worry about with a new variant.
“The first one is there is no evidence this is more dangerous and there is no evidence of that at the moment. There is no evidence to suggest that if you catch this variant you will have more serious disease than other variants.
“The second question is, is it invisible to the tests we have? The short answer is no. Current tests work against this variant, one bit of the testing might be slightly less effective, but most of the tests will work completely and the other ones will work completely normally as well.
“The third question, given that we now have a vaccine around the corner, is would we expect this to reduce the effectiveness of the vaccine? The thing to remember with this is that we do not yet have a vaccine deployed and it is relatively little, still, a relatively small amount of the population currently have immunity due to prior infection, so there is not huge selection pressure on this virus and therefore it would be surprising, not impossible, but pretty surprising if this would have evolved to be able to get around the vaccine.
“As time passes by, with any infection, then the selection pressure, which is when a high proportion of the population has been vaccinated, at that point, the new variants which emerge are more likely to be ones which are able to partially escape from a vaccine.
“But there is no reason to think that would be happening at the moment and that is being tested at the moment in Porton Down and other centres and we will be able to give more hard data on that relatively soon and we will do so once we have it.”
Coronaviruses usually need a lot more than one mutation to change their proteins sufficiently to evade immunity.
However, some viruses, such as influenza, mutate very fast.
Public Health authorities keep track of viruses and adapt vaccines accordingly.
It is unlikely that the new viral strain will render the vaccines useless already, but this may happen eventually.
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