New COVID strain in the UK: What we know in 500 words

Several countries ban UK passengers in bid to contain new mutation, which is 70 percent more infectious and ripping through London.

London and southeast England are placed in a new Tier 4 alert, essentially confining people to their homes [File: John Sibley/Reuters]

Viruses change all the time. Seasonal influenza mutates every year, which is why there is an updated flu jab annually.

So it was of little surprise to scientists that variants of COVID-19 have been detected since the pandemic started.

But concerns are growing over a new strain of coronavirus identified in the United Kingdom.

The broad symptoms of the new strain are the same – high temperature, persistent dry cough and a loss or change in taste and smell.

Vaccines should still be effective against it and the new strain is not believed to be any more deadly, but people are increasingly worried because this mutation appears to be 70 percent more infectious.

The new variant, which has been named VUI-202012/01 (the first Variant Under Investigation in December 2020), is thought to have first occurred in mid-September in the country’s southeast, in the capital London or the county of Kent.

Susan Hopkins of Public Health England said the agency notified the government on December 18 when modelling revealed the full seriousness of the new strain. The UK submitted its findings to the World Health Organization the same day.

Since then it spread quickly in the southeast, becoming the dominant form of the virus there.

In London, 62 percent of cases were due to the new variant in the week of December 9. That compares with 28 percent three weeks earlier.

Faced with this rapid development, the UK government has moved to enforce stricter lockdown measures over the coming Christmas period.

Earlier, UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson had been committed to allowing people to meet for festivities. But amid rising criticism and on the advice of his scientific advisers, many Britons are now banned from mixing households until at least the end of December, when the new measures will be reviewed.

Patrick Vallance, the UK’s chief scientific adviser, said the new variant may be in other countries as well but might have started in the UK.

The Netherlands and Belgium reacted quickly, banning travellers from the UK on December 20 in a bid to stop the new strain from spreading.

Other countries in Europe and elsewhere have since taken similar moves, including Argentina, Chile, Colombia and Canada.

According to the UK’s Chief Medical Officer Chris Whitty, current swab tests are able to identify the new variant.

Scientists say the new strain contains 23 changes, many associated with alterations in a protein made by the virus.

UK Health Minister Matt Hancock has suggested the new lockdown measures might stay in place for some time.

“Given how much faster this new variant spreads, it’s going to be very difficult to keep it under control until we have the vaccine rolled out,” Hancock said.

Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon said on Twitter that cases of the mutant strain were lower in Scotland “than the rest of the UK,” but warned, “preventative action may be necessary to stop the faster-spreading strain taking hold.”

More than 67,000 people have died of COVID-19 to date in the UK, making it one of Europe’s worst-hit along with Italy.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies