Advisers warn Kent strain of coronavirus could lead to MORE deaths

Mutated Kent coronavirus will likely cause MORE deaths in England than the first wave – even WITH lockdowns – and an unprecedented vaccine effort is the only way to fight it, Sage model warns

  • Members of SAGE sub-group SPI-M said the variant will infect a lot more people because it spreads faster
  • There’s no proof that it is more dangerous or deadly but more cases will inevitably lead to more deaths
  • The variant is concentrated in London, the East and South East of England but is spreading elsewhere
  • Two cases of a second, potentially even faster spreading variant from South Africa were announced last night 
  • More than 500,000 people and rising have been vaccinated against Covid-19 in the UK already

SAGE advisers have warned that the highly infectious Kent strain of coronavirus could lead to more deaths in 2021 than the 70,000 recorded in 2020, unless the roll-out of the vaccine is accelerated.

They said the variant – named B.1.1.7 and thought to be between 50 and 74 per faster spreading than its predecessor – would lead to more deaths simply because it would infect people at a faster rate and lead to a greater number of cases.

There is still no evidence to suggest the variant is any more deadly than previous versions of the virus, but even if it kills the same percentage of people who catch it, more cases will inevitably lead to more deaths.  

The Government’s tiered local lockdown system would not be enough to contain the strain, the experts from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine added.

Considering the Government’s arsenal of measures against the virus, they said only a national lockdown where primary and secondary schools and universities were forced to close until February would ensure there were fewer deaths than in the first wave of the pandemic.

But they added this would only work if Covid-19 vaccinations were rapidly accelerated, with two million Britons getting the jab every week and becoming immune to the virus.

The Pfizer vaccine has already been approved, but only given to more than 500,000 Britons in the first two weeks of the programme, prompting warnings that the roll out needs to be sped up.

The Oxford/AstraZeneca coronavirus vaccine, of which the UK has ordered 100million doses, is expected to get the green light before the end of this year – promising to jump-start vaccinations as millions more jabs are dished out to hospitals and GP surgeries.

LEFT: NHS England regions with extensive spread of the Kent variant and the impact on deaths and hospitalisations if Tier Four measures are imposed in January (grey bar), and RIGHT NHS England regions without extensive spread of the Kent variant but placed into Tier Four measures in January. There is significantly greater uncertainty about the impact the measures could have on deaths and hospitalisations

LEFT: Three NHS England regions – London, South East and East of England – projections for hospitalisations, deaths and infection rates if the Covid-19 variant had not emerged. RIGHT: Impact of Covid-19 variant in the same regions

Professor John Edmunds, Professor Sebastian Funk and Professor Rosalind Eggo, who are all members of the SAGE advisory group SPI-M-O, contributed to the study published today as a pre-print.

‘The increase in transmissibility is likely to lead to a large increase in incidence, with Covid-19 hospitalisations and deaths projected to reach higher levels in 2021 than were observed in 2020,’ they wrote, ‘even if regional tiered restrictions implemented before December 19 are maintained’.

The Health Secretary told the remaining parts of the South East not already in the toughest level they would be in it from midnight on Christmas Day

NHS workers ‘frustrated’ as admin staff get Covid vaccine BEFORE doctors 

NHS workers are ‘frustrated’ that admin staff are being offered the Covid-19 vaccine before frontline doctors and nurses and that hospitals and GP surgeries face delays to deliveries of the crucial jab.

The British Medical Association (BMA) warned it was ‘deeply worrying’ that access to the jab was not equal across the health service, amid concerns that GPs in high risk roles are being turned away from vaccination hubs.

Writing in a letter to the chief executive of NHS England Sir Simon Stevens, BMA chairman Dr Chaand Nagpaul said there was ‘no consistent approach’ to vaccinating frontline staff for the virus, and urged trusts to prioritise those who are most at risk.

The Doctors Association UK (DAUK) wrote to the Health Secretary Matt Hancock to call on him to let all doctors and nurses know when they would receive the vaccine.

The programme has been hit by delays since it started but had managed to get jabs into the arms of 500,000 people by Monday, Boris Johnson said.

But more than half of the 135 NHS Trusts in England are still waiting to receive deliveries of the jab, now two weeks after it was approved by regulators, reports The Guardian.

Only 57 trusts – 42 per cent – have so far taken delivery, with Department of Health officials claiming all will have received their first delivery by January 4.

And around two thirds of GP surgeries that signed up to dole out the vaccines are also said to still be waiting.

 

‘Our estimates suggest that control measures of a similar stringency to the national lockdown in England in November 2020 are unlikely to reduce the effective reproduction rate (R number) to less than one, unless primary schools, secondary schools and universities are closed.’

They continued: ‘We project that large resurgences of the virus are likely to occur following easing of control measures.

‘It may be necessary to greatly accelerate vaccine roll out to have an appreciable impact in suppressing the resulting disease burden.’

It came after a senior minister sowed confusion yesterday morning over whether Christmas Day bubbles could be axed at the last minute, potentially throwing the Christmas plans of millions into further chaos.

Communities Secretary Robert Jenrick initially refused to rule out changes being made to the plan to allow extended households to meed on December 25 amid a surge in cases powered by a mutant Covid strain.

Mr Jenrick told Sky News: ‘If we need to change that (Christmas plans) in light of the new variant, then we won’t hesitate to do so.’ 

But later on BBC Breakfast he said it was ‘extremely unlikely’ that Christmas Day plans would be upended with less than 48 hours to go until presents are unwrapped.

He told BBC Breakfast there were currently  ‘no plans’ to make changes for the 25th – despite earlier confirming ministers and experts are due to meet this morning to discuss what changes to England’s tiers are required in the face of the growth in cases.

It was only in his third interview of the morning, to Radio 4’s Today Programme, that he vowed: ‘We are not going to change people’s plans 24-48 hours before Christmas.’  

It came after chaos spread across Kent, with fights breaking out between lorry drivers and police at the Port of Dover and Manston Airport.

Dozens of truckers trying to reach their homes on the Continent tried to force their way past officers guarding the port today as they bid to get home for Christmas.

Hundreds left their cabs and walked along the A20 to the port entrance in Kent at 8am jeering and whistling, with some shouting in English: ‘Open the border’, ‘We just want to go home’ and ‘F*** you, Boris!’

At one point several of them surged forwards towards a line of Kent Police officers who were forced to push them back as days of simmering anger at the chaotic situation amid the Covid-19 pandemic bubbled to the surface.  Some drivers showed police apparently negative results, but an officer said a lot of them were ‘fake test sheets’.

Tensions also boiled over 18 miles away at Manston Airport, where truckers whose lorries are being held staged a protest, broke down fences and blocked roads. The Army and NHS staff are working together to administer Covid-19 tests at the airport, which are handed to drivers in their cabs to be self-administered under supervision. 

Mr Jenrick told Sky News yesterday ‘it may be necessary to take further action’ to limit the spread of the new coronavirus variant amid speculation of wider lockdown measures. 

Government officials today looked at plans for a third lockdown across the whole of England as the new coronavirus strain – thought to be up to 70 per cent more infectious – spread to the South West, Midlands and the North (pictured: Market Street in Manchester yesterday).

‘We don’t have a timetable for that. The Government’s Covid operations committee is meeting later today to review further evidence,’ he said.

‘We keep this under review, we are constantly hearing from our scientific advisers about what we should do.’

The new variant is ‘very concerning’ and was ‘prevalent probably in most regions of the country’.

First Minister Nicola Sturgeon apologises for breaking Scots Covid rules at funeral wake

Nicola Sturgeon has been caught flouting Covid rules by speaking to pensioners in a pub without wearing a mask.

The Scottish first minister has had to apologise for her lapse after months of advocating draconian regulations.

The SNP leader, 50, was photographed chatting to three women at a wake last week in Edinburgh. Rules drawn up by her Scottish devolved government state customers in hospitality settings must wear a face covering unless seated at a table.

But though the SNP leader appeared to socially distance herself from the women, pictures show she was still standing away from her table without a face mask at the Stable Bar and Restaurant.

‘Last Friday, while attending a funeral wake, I had my mask off briefly. This was a stupid mistake and I’m really sorry,’ she told The Scottish Sun.

‘I talk every day about the importance of masks, so I’m not going to offer any excuses. I was in the wrong, I’m kicking myself and I’m sorry.’ 

Home Secretary Priti Patel added to fears on Tuesday, confirming more areas will be plunged into the toughest tier of Covid outbreaks aren’t kept under control and refusing to rule out a national shutdown. 

She told Sky News: ‘If the virus continues to spread then we will take stronger measures because at the end of the day our objective is to save lives and to keep people safe.’

Department of Health data shows daily Covid infections have doubled week-on-week because of rapidly growing clusters across London, the South East and East. No10’s top scientific advisers blame the spread on a mutated form thought to be up to 70 per cent more infectious.

Deaths have also started to soar in line with the spike in cases in the three badly-hit regions, which were forced into draconian Tier Four restrictions in a last-ditch attempt to strangle their outbreaks. Officials recorded another 691 victims on Tuesday, the highest daily toll since November 25 and up on the 506 recorded last Tuesday.

But fatalities – which lag behind infections because it can take infected patients several weeks to succumb to the illness – are expected to continue to spike in the coming weeks as a result of the rising number of cases, before tailing off as a result of the Tier Four curbs.  

Health chiefs in Cumbria have said the new variant is in the county and could be behind some sharp increases in new cases.

Director of public health for Cumbria, Colin Cox, said in the district of Eden rates had risen to 345 cases per 100,000 people, the highest seen in Cumbria to date, and Lancashire’s director of public health Sakthi Karunanithi said there was a ‘high likelihood’ the new variant was in the county.

Greater Manchester mayor Andy Burnham said there was no evidence the strain has reached the area but what public health directors ‘want to emphasise is it is safe for people to assume that it is already here or it is about to arrive’.

On Monday, Brighton’s council leader Phelim Mac Cafferty said the number of cases in the city had ‘more than doubled in one week’.

It comes as one of the Government’s scientific advisers warned Britain faces a ‘human disaster’ unless ministers impose ‘stricter’ rules across the country, fuelling fears of a full New Year lockdown in England.

Meanwhile, Cambridge University experts behind a string of dire coronavirus projections warned that England was on track for 900 deaths a day before the Tier Four restrictions – which cancelled Christmas for 16million people – were imposed. 

The academics, who were behind the same gloomy warning of 4,000 daily deaths that spooked Number 10 into England’s November shutdown, estimated the nation was hurtling towards fatality tolls seen during the darkest days of the first wave in April.

But the team admit the stark claim was made without accounting for Downing St’s decision to plunge a quarter of the country into the toughest virus-controlling curbs, meaning their dramatic estimate – which gets revised every fortnight – is likely to be drastically toned down when the effects of the restrictions kick in.

England was last night put on notice for a New Year lockdown after the Government’s chief scientific adviser Sir Patrick Vallance warned it was likely whack-a-mole measures would ‘need to be increased’ outside of London and the South East because the mutated variant of Covid was already ‘everywhere’.   

The spread of the new Covid-19 strain could result in parts of the south-west, Midlands and the North being moved into Tier 4 as early as Boxing Day, health sources said today

Burnley’s infection rate currently sits at 438 per 100,000 people, with Lincoln and Boston both over 400. By contrast, Gosport, which is under Tier 4 measures, has 159 cases per 100,000.

Police continue to arrest people in breach of Tier 4 restrictions which came into force on Sunday – but measures could be extended to other parts of the country as early as Boxing Day


Cambridge University scientists have warned that England faced up to 900 daily Covid deaths by New Year’s Day without the introduction of Tier Four restrictions (left). The academics, who were behind the same gloomy warning of 4,000 fatalities a day that spooked ministers into imposing England’s November shutdown, estimate daily cases across the nation have risen 55 per cent to 91,000 because of spiralling outbreaks in London and the South East (right). The red dots on the graph on the left are actual deaths, while the red vertical line is December 19 – when Tier Four restrictions came into place. The blue vertical lines represent March 23 – when the first national lockdown was enforced – and May 11, when some curbs were eased

Separate data today revealed Covid deaths fell by 3 per cent in England and Wales in the first week after England’s national lockdown 

Lorry drivers stuck in Kent, unable to move in a coronavirus border row, finally have the green light to travel to France from this morning – but will have to provide a negative Covid test before crossing the Channel.

Transport Secretary Grant Shapps took to social media tonight to confirm that a deal had been struck, which also means planes, boats and the Eurostar will all resume their service after 48 hours of chaos.

The two nations had previously been at loggerheads over which type of test would be required to allow trucks back on the road, with the travel ban imposed in response to fears about the spread of the more infectious coronavirus strain, which is spreading rapidly in the UK.

French President Emmanuel Macron demanded the gold-standard PCR tests are used, which are more expensive, lab-based tests that can take up to 72 hours to process. 

The UK, on the other hand, had wanted to use the faster lateral flow tests which can provide results within an hour – even though these are considered less effective unless administered by a nurse and were even dubbed effectively useless earlier today. 

In a statement tonight, the French foreign affairs ministry said that from midnight there would be a ‘limited resumption of the movement of people from the United Kingdom to France subject to negative health tests sensitive to the variant’.

It added that a negative test result, taken less than 72 hours before the journey, is required and this can be either a PCR or lateral flow test sensitive to the new variant 

It comes after the EU urged European countries to drop all travel bans imposed on the UK, including on the movement of freight.

The European Commission published guidance at lunchtime recommending all non-essential travel to and from the UK should be ‘discouraged’ because of the risk posed by a new mutant strain of coronavirus which spreads quicker than its predecessor.

But it added: ‘Flight and train bans should be discontinued given the need to ensure essential travel and avoid supply chain disruptions.’

SAGE experts have repeated their calls for tougher action, with behavioural psychologist Professor Robert West warning the Government’s current curbs were unlikely to contain the spread of Covid. 

He argued the UK needed to bolster social distancing rules and build a test, travel, isolate and support programme similar to ones used in East Asia.

And The Mail understands that Chief Medical Officer Chris Whitty has warned the Prime Minister that the number of patients in hospital with coronavirus is on course to match the April peak by New Year’s Eve – and will continue increasing in January.

Downing Street yesterday tried to play down suggestions that a third national lockdown was imminent, but Sir Patrick said the new strain, which is thought to spread up to 70 per cent more easily, was already present ‘around the country’. 

It comes as official data shows the mutated coronavirus strain has rapidly spread through swathes of England in a fortnight and now accounts for the majority of infections in some regions.

The Office for National Statistics estimates 62 per cent of cases in London were because of the new variant in the week up to December 9, the most recent snapshot provided by the Government agency. That was almost double the amount of infections in the capital attributed to the mutation in the seven-day period to November 25 (35 per cent).

It’s believed the new variant — thought to be up to 70 per cent more infectious than regular Covid — emerged in a patient in Kent and made its way into London and the commuter belt. 

Parents’ fury as schools ‘could stay shut for ALL of January’ 

Parents are ‘dreading’ the prospect hinted at by Home Secretary Priti Patel of schools being shut throughout January as Britain grapples with the new strain of coronavirus.

Ordinarily after the Christmas break, children would return to schools in the first week of January but this date was recently pushed back to January 11.

But when asked about when classrooms would re-open in the New Year, Ms Patel only said that pupils would ‘eventually’ return as she pinned hopes on the mass testing regime being rolled out in schools.

This is despite scientists’ concerns that the lateral flow tests being used as part of Number 10’s Operation Moonshot – which officials hope will help unlock swathes of Britain from draconian restrictions – are too inaccurate and could lead to children and staff spreading the virus despite being told they are clear.

Trials of on-the-spot lateral flow tests in Liverpool found they miss half of infected people and a study on University of Birmingham students predicted the self-administered swabs detected just three per cent of cases.

It comes after Government source said on Monday that some schools could end up staying closed until February amid fears that children are more likely to catch the new mutant strain of coronavirus.

Furious parents took to Mumsnet on Monday and Tuesday to air their concerns, with several saying they were ‘dreading’ the prospect of a delay to schools opening.

Another described how the first lockdown in March, which saw schools closed nationwide, ‘nearly broke me’. They added that the ‘guilt’ they felt at seeing their child ‘in front of a screen for 10 hours a day’ was ‘unendurable’.

Britain’s largest teaching union had earlier demanded classes be moved online for two weeks after Christmas to give school staff the chance to get vaccinated against Covid-19.

But former headteacher Chris McGovern, of the Campaign for Real Education, said the school closures were ‘disastrous and catastrophic’ for the nation’s poorest children and that teaching unions were ‘playing a political game’.

How the mutated form of Covid has rapidly spread across swathes of England over the last fortnight 

The mutated coronavirus strain has rapidly spread through swathes of England in a fortnight, according to official data that shows it now accounts for the majority of infections in some regions.

The Office for National Statistics estimates 62 per cent of cases in London were because of the new variant in the week up to December 9, the most recent snapshot provided by the Government agency. That was almost double the amount of infections in the capital attributed to the mutation in the seven-day period to November 25 (35 per cent).

It’s believed the new variant — thought to be up to 70 per cent more infectious than regular Covid — emerged in a patient in Kent and made its way into London and the commuter belt.

In the East of England, the strain is estimated to have made up 59 per cent of infections in the week to December 9, soaring from 31 per cent the two weeks prior. The ONS said 43 per cent of cases in the South East in the most recent week were cause by the variant, up slightly from the 39 per cent on November 25. 

Smaller rises were seen elsewhere in the country. In the Midlands the figure jumped from 19 to 27 per cent, in the South West the figure rose from 27 to 28 per cent and for the North West it went from 12 to 17 per cent.

The North East and Yorkshire actually saw declines in cases of the super-charged strain, with the percentage of cases falling from 18 to 15 per cent and seven to five per cent, respectively. 

The data comes from the ONS’ Infection Survey, which has been monitoring Britain’s crisis by sending tens of thousands of swabs to random households across the country, regardless of whether people have symptoms.

As the new strain becomes more widespread and triggers a third wave of infections, there are fears that hospitals could become overwhelmed and deaths could approach the devastating levels seen in spring.

But scientists have assured the public there is no evidence to suggest it is more lethal than regular Covid and have even suggested it could be less dangerous. From an evolutionary standpoint, viruses can transmit more easily if they cause mild or asymptomatic illness because it means carriers continue to go about their daily lives, thereby spreading the contagion more extensively.

In the East of England, the strain is estimated to have made up 59 per cent of infections in the week to December 9, soaring from 31 per cent the two weeks prior. 

The ONS said 43 per cent of cases in the South East in the most recent week were cause by the variant, up slightly from the 39 per cent on November 25. 

Smaller rises were seen elsewhere in the country. In the Midlands the figure jumped from 19 to 27 per cent, in the South West the figure rose from 27 to 28 per cent and for the North West it went from 12 to 17 per cent.

The North East and Yorkshire actually saw declines in cases of the super-charged strain, with the percentage of cases falling from 18 to 15 per cent and seven to five per cent, respectively. 

The data comes from the ONS’ Infection Survey, which has been monitoring Britain’s crisis by sending tens of thousands of swabs to random households across the country, regardless of whether people have symptoms.

As the new strain becomes more widespread and triggers a third wave of infections, there are fears that hospitals could become overwhelmed and deaths could approach the devastating levels seen in spring.

But scientists have assured the public there is no evidence to suggest it is more lethal than regular Covid and have even suggested it could be less dangerous.

From an evolutionary standpoint, viruses can transmit more easily if they cause mild or asymptomatic illness because it means carriers continue to go about their daily lives, thereby spreading the contagion more extensively.

Separate data today revealed Covid deaths fell by 3 per cent in England and Wales in the first week after England’s national lockdown. 

Office for National Statistics (ONS) data shows there were 2,756 coronavirus fatalities in the seven-day spell that ended December 11, with Covid being the underlying cause of death for nearly 85 per cent of victims. 

It was the second week in a row that coronavirus deaths dropped, proving that the draconian restrictions did cut the spread of the virus and save hundreds of lives. 

For comparison, 2,835 fatalities were registered over the last week of lockdown, down from a five-month high of 3,040 the week before.

But the figures don’t prove that England’s return to a whack-a-mole tiered strategy has worked to keep the illness under control long-term because it can take infected patients several weeks to succumb to the disease. 

It means the effects of the revamped three-tier system won’t be evident in ONS figures for another fortnight. 

But swathes of data showed the original tiered restrictions – which Number 10’s top scientists feared wouldn’t be enough to keep the winter crisis at bay – tackled the virus, slashing the number of new infections and thwarting pressure on hospitals in the North West. 

It comes as France eased its travel ban on freight in Britain tonight – permitting drivers can provide a negative Covid test.

Lorry drivers stuck in Kent, unable to move in a coronavirus border row, finally have the green light to travel to France from this morning. 

The two nations had previously been at loggerheads over which type of test would be required to allow trucks back on the road, with the travel ban imposed in response to fears about the spread of the more infectious coronavirus strain, which is spreading rapidly in the UK. 

In a statement yesterday, the French foreign affairs ministry said that from midnight there would be a ‘limited resumption of the movement of people from the United Kingdom to France subject to negative health tests sensitive to the variant’. 

It added that a negative test result, taken less than 72 hours before the journey, is required and this can be either a PCR or lateral flow test sensitive to the new variant.

Those who can make journeys include French and EU residents, British or third-party nationals who normally live in France or the EU, as well as some other groups.  

The deal marks a significant breakthrough after a long period of deadlock, with Brussels having called for an end to the border blockade which has seen 4,000 more lorries park up in Kent.

It came after the EU urged European countries to drop all travel bans imposed on the UK, including on the movement of freight.

The European Commission published guidance at lunchtime on Tuesday, recommending all non-essential travel to and from the UK should be ‘discouraged’ because of the risk posed by a new mutant strain of coronavirus which spreads quicker than its predecessor.

But it added: ‘Flight and train bans should be discontinued given the need to ensure essential travel and avoid supply chain disruptions.’ 

Meanwhile, parents are ‘dreading’ the prospect hinted at by Home Secretary Priti Patel of schools being shut throughout January as Britain grapples with the new strain of coronavirus.

Ordinarily after the Christmas break, children would return to schools in the first week of January but this date was recently pushed back to January 11.

But when asked about when classrooms would re-open in the New Year, Ms Patel only said that pupils would ‘eventually’ return as she pinned hopes on the mass testing regime being rolled out in schools.

This is despite scientists’ concerns that the lateral flow tests being used as part of Number 10’s Operation Moonshot – which officials hope will help unlock swathes of Britain from draconian restrictions – are too inaccurate and could lead to children and staff spreading the virus despite being told they are clear.

Trials of on-the-spot lateral flow tests in Liverpool found they miss half of infected people and a study on University of Birmingham students predicted the self-administered swabs detected just three per cent of cases.

It comes after Government source said on Monday that some schools could end up staying closed until February amid fears that children are more likely to catch the new mutant strain of coronavirus.

Furious parents took to Mumsnet on Monday and Tuesday to air their concerns, with several saying they were ‘dreading’ the prospect of a delay to schools opening.

Another described how the first lockdown in March, which saw schools closed nationwide, ‘nearly broke me’. They added that the ‘guilt’ they felt at seeing their child ‘in front of a screen for 10 hours a day’ was ‘unendurable’.

Britain’s largest teaching union had earlier demanded classes be moved online for two weeks after Christmas to give school staff the chance to get vaccinated against Covid-19.

But former headteacher Chris McGovern, of the Campaign for Real Education, said the school closures were ‘disastrous and catastrophic’ for the nation’s poorest children and that teaching unions were ‘playing a political game’. 

 

QUESTIONS ANSWERED ON NEW COVID MUTATION: HOW DID IT HAPPEN, IS IT MORE DANGEROUS AND HOW LONG HAS IT BEEN IN THE UK?

By David Churchill

What has happened to the coronavirus to trigger such concern?

A new strain of Covid has developed which is said to spread far faster. A ‘strain’ is a new version of a virus which has genetic mutations. The new strain is a version of Sars-Cov-2, the coronavirus which causes the disease Covid-19.

It has been named VUI-202012/01. These letters and numbers stand for ‘variant under investigation’ and the month, December 2020.

What makes it so worrying?

This particular variant is defined by up to 17 changes or mutations in the coronavirus spike protein. It is the combination of some of these changes which scientists believe could make it more infectious.

It is thought they could help the virus’ spike protein latch on to human cells and gain entry more easily.

Is it certain the new variation is accelerating the spread of the virus?

No, but scientists say preliminary evidence suggests it does.

Boris Johnson said it may spread up to 70 per cent more easily than other strains of the virus, potentially driving up the ‘R rate’ – which measures how quickly the virus spreads – significantly.

On Saturday night, Mr Johnson said it could drive up the ‘R rate’ by as much as 0.4.

This would be particularly significant in areas such as Eastern England, where it is 1.4, and both London and the South East, where it is 1.3. The ‘R rate’ must remain below 1 for infections to decrease.

Is the new variant more dangerous?

Scientists don’t think so for now. When asked on Saturday night if it was more lethal than the previous strain, Chief Medical Officer Professor Chris Whitty said ‘the answer seems to be ‘No’, as far as we can tell at the moment’.

Yesterday Dr Susan Hopkins, of Public Health England, said there was evidence of people with the new variant having higher viral loads inside them.

But she said this did not mean people would get more ill.

Ravi Gupta, professor of clinical microbiology at the University of Cambridge, said: ‘It’s unlikely it’ll make people sicker, but it could make it harder to control.’

If it does make the virus harder to control and hospitals become overrun, it could pose new challenges.

Are mutations unusual?

No. Seasonal influenza mutates every year. Variants of Sars-Cov-2 have also been observed in other countries, such as Spain.

However, one scientific paper suggests the number and combination of changes which have occurred in this new variant is potentially ‘unprecedented’.

Most mutations observed to date are thought to have happened more slowly. Also, most changes have no effect on how easily the virus spreads.

There are already about 4,000 mutations in the spike protein gene.

What has caused the mutation?

This is still being investigated. One theory is that growing natural immunity in the UK population, which makes it harder for the virus to spread, might have forced it to adapt.

Another theory is that it has developed in chronically ill patients who have fought the virus off over a long period of time, with it then being passed onto others.

Prof Paul Hunter, Professor in Medicine at the University of East Anglia, yesterday said it was ‘plausible’ and ‘highly likely’ this has happened.

However, he stressed it is impossible to prove at the moment.

What evidence is there to support the latter theory?

Some evidence supporting it was spotted when samples of virus were collected from a Cambridge patient. They had been treated with convalescent plasma – blood plasma containing antibodies from a recovered patient.

It is possible the virus mutated during that treatment, developing more resistance to the antibodies. This patient died of the infection, but it’s also possible the mutation has occurred elsewhere.

A paper co-authored by Andrew Rambaut, Professor of Molecular Evolution at the University of Edinburgh, states: ‘If antibody therapy is administered after many weeks of chronic infection, the virus population may be unusually large and genetically diverse…creating suitable circumstances for the rapid fixation of multiple virus genetic changes.’

Professor Hunter added: ‘Mutation in viruses are a random event and the longer someone is infected the more likely a random event is to occur.’

What do these mutations do?

Many occur in what’s called the ‘receptor binding domain’ of the virus’ spike protein. This helps the virus latch on to human cells and gain entry. The mutations make it easier for the virus to bind to human cells’ ACE2 receptors.

It is also possible the changes help the virus avoid human antibodies which would otherwise help fight off infection.

Who detected it?

It was discovered by the Covid-19 Genomics UK (COG-UK) consortium, which carries out random genetic sequencing of positive covid-19 samples.

It is a consortium of the UK’s four public health agencies, Wellcome Sanger Institute and 12 academic institutions.

How long has it been in the UK and where did it start?

As of mid-December, there were more than 1,000 cases in nearly 60 different local authorities, although the true number will be higher.

They have predominantly been found in the south east of England, in Kent and London. It may now account for 60 per cent of the capital’s cases.

But it has been detected elsewhere, including in Wales and Scotland.

The two earliest samples were collected on September 20 in Kent and another the next day in London.

Why was action to tackle it not taken sooner?

Because the potentially greater transmissibility was only discovered late last week by academics.

Has it been detected anywhere else in the world?

One aspect of the new variant, known as a N501Y mutation, was circulating in Australia between June and July, in America in July and in Brazil as far back as April, according to scientists.

It is therefore unclear what role, if any, travellers carrying the virus may have had.

Dr Julian Tang, a Virologist and expert in Respiratory science at the University of Leicester, said: ‘Whether or not these viruses were brought to the UK and Europe later by travellers or arose spontaneously in multiple locations around the world – in response to human host immune selection pressures – requires further investigation.’

Another change, known as the D614G variant, has previously been detected in western Europe and North America. But it is possible that the new variant evolved in the UK.

What can I do to avoid getting the new variant?

The same as always – keeping your distance from people, washing your hands regularly, wearing a mask and abiding by the tier restrictions in your area.

Yesterday Dr Chaand Nagpaul, chair of the British Medical Association, said: ‘The way in which you control the spread of the virus, including this new variant, is exactly the same. It is about continuing stringent measures. The same rules apply.’

Will the new variant reduce the effectiveness of vaccines?

More studies are needed.

Dr Susan Hopkins, of Public Health England, said that until these are carried out scientists cannot be certain whether – and by how much – the new variant reduces the effectiveness of developed vaccines.

She said: ‘The vaccine induces a strong, multiple response, immune response and therefore it is unlikely that this vaccine response is going to be completely gone.’ When mutations happen it is, in theory, possible the antibodies generated by vaccines can be evaded.

But vaccines produce a wide range of antibodies that simultaneously attack the virus from different angles, making it hard for it to evade all of them at once.

Vaccines could also be tweaked to make them more effective if the new mutation does prove to be more resistant to them.

So what are the scientists doing now?

Scientists will be growing the new strain in the lab to see how it responds. This includes looking at whether it produces the same antibody response, how it reacts to the vaccine, and modelling the new strain.

It could take up to two weeks for this process to be complete.  

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