UK coronavirus variant on course ‘to sweep the world,’ leading scientist says

Holly Ellyatt

Ron Votral receives a vaccine against the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) at a drive-through vaccination site in Robstown, Texas, February 9, 2021.

Go Nakamura | Reuters

LONDON — A variant of the coronavirus that emerged in the U.K. and has now been identified in over 80 countries could become the dominant form of the virus worldwide, according to the head of the U.K.’s genetic surveillance program.

“The new variant has swept the country and it’s going to sweep the world, in all probability,” said Sharon Peacock, director of the Covid-19 Genomics UK Consortium.

“In the future, I think the key is going to be if something (a variant) is particularly problematic with the vaccines,” she told the BBC’s Newcast podcast.

The group that Peacock heads was created in April and brings together highly respected experts and institutes to collect, sequence and analyze genomes of the virus as part of the U.K.’s pandemic response. To date, it has tracked the genetic history of more than 250,000 samples of the virus.

The consortium first detected the more infectious mutation, formally known as B1.1.7, in Kent in southeast England in September through retrospective analysis of virus samples.

Viruses mutate all the time, but experts become concerned when a virus mutates to become more transmissible, as in this case, or more deadly. The higher infection rates associated with the variant identified in the U.K. are likely to lead to more hospitalizations and, sadly, more deaths. As a result, containing it has become a priority.

The variant spread quickly throughout the southeast of England and London, and has now become the dominant strain in Britain. It has also been detected in more than 80 countries, according to the World Health Organization’s latest count, sending health authorities scrambling to isolate cases, although it’s believed that this more virulent strain is already widely in circulation.

It’s difficult to know the exact origin of the mutation, and given the work of the consortium it was likely to find new variants in the U.K. Other countries that have advance genome sequencing of the virus, like Denmark and South Africa, have also discovered variants. Peacock, a professor of public health and microbiology at the University of Cambridge, said sequencing coronavirus variants will be required for at least 10 years.

So far, there have been over 107 million coronavirus cases and over 2.3 million deaths around the world, according to Johns Hopkins University.

Mutation mutating

Aside from the variant of the virus first seen in southeastern England, two new variants have appeared in a cluster of cases in Liverpool and Bristol that scientists are monitoring.

The mutation in Bristol has been designated a “variant of concern” by Britain’s New and Emerging Respiratory Virus Threats Advisory Group.

Peacock said that although mutations are a concern, the variant seen in and around Bristol was in “contained areas and in very low numbers,” with only 21 cases detected.

“It’s inevitable that the virus is going to keep on mutating, but what’s concerning is that the B1.1.7 variant that we’ve had circulating for some weeks and months is starting to mutate again, and get new mutations, which could affect the way that we handle the virus in terms of immunity, and the effectiveness of vaccines,” she added.

Dr. Catherine Smallwood, senior emergency officer in WHO’s Europe team, said Thursday during a press briefing that the B1.1.7 variant “is now very clearly circulating in the communities in more than half of the countries around the (European) region.” WHO’s European region comprises 53 countries.

“And that particular variant of concern, especially in western European countries, is spreading in terms of prevalence, more quickly than other lineages,” she added.

“And so it’s really important we keep an eye on overall transmission rates because very quickly, once it becomes dominant, it may impact the epidemic curve overall and may lead to the need for a more restrictive approach to the public health and social measures put in place so that the overall transmission rates can decrease.”

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