A report conducted on behalf of the COVID-19 Genomics Consortium UK (CoG-UK), makes it clear that the coronavirus (Covid-19) mutation was first identified in September.
Over 60% of cases
The CoG-UK report, published on 18 December 2020, says that:
the two earliest sampled genomes that belong to the B.1.1.7 lineage [the name of the variant] were collected on 20-Sept-2020 in Kent and another on 21-Sept-2020 from Greater London.
By mid-November, it was found that about 26% of coronavirus cases had originated from the new strain. By the week commencing 9 December, in London alone that figure rose to over 60%, the government’s chief scientific adviser Patrick Vallance claimed.
At a New and Emerging Respiratory Virus Threats Advisory Group (NERVTAG) meeting on 18 December, Martin Hibberd, Professor of Emerging Infectious Disease at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, said that the variant, also known as VUI-202012/01:
appears to have all the human lethality that the original [Coronavirus] had but with an increased ability to transmit. Hopefully, it does not alter the immune response sufficiently to interfere with the vaccine protection.
At the same meeting professor Rowland Kao, Royal (Dick) School of Veterinary Studies and Roslin Institute, University of Edinburgh, warned that it may now be too late to stop widespread circulation of the variant across the UK:
many people who were aiming to travel for the Christmas break likely would have already done so; add-in the anecdotal reports of people rushing to travel before restrictions, and this raises the possibility that travel bans are already too late to have prevented widespread circulation of the new variant across the UK, spread that will only increase due to people returning to their non-holiday places of residence, after the break.
Dr Justin O’Grady from the Quadram Institute and professor of medical microbiology at the University of East Anglia (UEA) explains the dangers of higher transmission:
The issue is that it [the new variant] may spread quicker and so more people will end up in hospital and therefore die. We were hoping to protect those people by getting the vaccines out quickly and not letting them get this in the first place. If the virus transmits faster th[e]n those people are more in danger now because they will end up in hospitals and the hospitals may be overrun…So for society, it could be a bigger threat.
Also worryingly, minutes of a NERVTAG meeting on 18 December regarding the variant state:
VUI-202012/01 has demonstrated exponential growth during a period when national lockdown measures were in place.
Dr Andrew Lee at the University of Sheffield told Huffington Post UK that:
If the strain has a selective advantage, it becomes the dominant strain. What will happen is that it will evolve and become much more widespread throughout the UK – and probably elsewhere, which is why Europe and other countries are so concerned about it. It wouldn’t surprise me if it is a matter of time before it becomes the dominant strain.
However, the Guardian reports that Ewan Birney, deputy director general of the Ewan Birney, European Molecular Biology Laboratory and joint director of its European Bioinformatics Institute in Cambridge, takes a different view:
If the new variant was going to have a big impact on disease severity, we would have seen that by now.
Hospital cases as a proportion of numbers of infections would have either rocketed or dropped dramatically. Neither has happened, so we can conclude that the impact on numbers of severe cases is likely to be modest: slightly more or slightly fewer.
Asleep at the wheel
What is clear is that the new variant has been known for several months, though it was not until December that it was formally named:
On Saturday Johnson lied again.
HE said the new variant #Covid_19 raised R 0.4 when it is actually 0.9.Why is the variant called #vui202012/01 when it was discovered in Kent in September. Is it because they don't want People to realise they refused a lockdown then @UKActionteam
— kelvin Fitzimmions (@fitzfun2011) December 21, 2020
Indeed, it beggars belief that Boris Johnson was not aware of the mutation back in September or during the two or three months that followed. Time will tell if earlier intervention by the politicians – the prime minister downwards – would have stemmed the spread of this new strain.
Meanwhile, the new variant is reported to be prevalent in all parts of the UK, apart from the north of Ireland. Until more is known, it does no harm to be over-cautious and further restrict physical contact with others.
Featured image via Youtube
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