Covid mutation comes as a stark reminder that this disease is not beaten yet
In Denmark, the most worrying combinations of mutations, which appear to make the virus resistant
In Denmark, the most worrying combinations of mutations, which appear to make the virus resistant to antibodies, now appear to have died out.
Dr Andrew Davidson, reader in Virology at the University of Bristol, said mutations could make the virus less deadly. But he warned that if it infected more people it could still cause problems in the short term.
“The virus could even be less virulent,” he said. “However if it spreads more easily but causes the same disease severity more people will end up becoming ill in a shorter period of time. A virus that spreads more easily will hamper control efforts.”
Often changes have no impact at all. Matt Hancock, the Health Secretary, told MPs there is currently “nothing to suggest” the variant is more likely to cause serious symptoms and the World Health Organisation (WHO) has also downplayed the mutation.
Speaking at the Downing Street press conference on Monday night, Professor Chris Whitty, the chief medical officer, revealed that the variant had been identified in Kent and praised the UK’s genomic research capabilities.
He said: “It’s because of this huge surveillance system for coronavirus that we’ve built up that they could see this, the problem in Kent, and went specifically to look and to see if there was anything going on.”
He added that researchers had sequenced the virus’s genome, which led to the insight that it was a different strain, and said: “It’s a tribute to British science and in particular the support that has gone into genomics over the past decade, that means that we’re in a position to be able to identify this sort of strain.”
Professor Jonathan Ball, professor of Molecular Virology at the University of Nottingham, said: “The genetic information in many viruses can change very rapidly and sometimes these changes can benefit the virus – by allowing it to transmit more efficiently or to escape from vaccines or treatments – but many changes have no effect at all.
“Even though a new genetic variant of the virus has emerged and is spreading in many parts of the UK and across the world, this can happen purely by chance.
“Therefore, it is important that we study any genetic changes as they occur, to work out if they are affecting how the virus behaves, and until we have done that important work it is premature to make any claims about the potential impacts of virus mutation.”
A paper from scientists including Professor Francois Balloux of University College London in November also suggested that no mutation found so far has been shown to increase transmission.
On Monday, Prof Balloux said he believed Mr Hancock was referring to a variant called 20A.EU.1 which had spread in several countries in Europe. But Prof Balloux said there was no evidence it spreads faster.
“There’s no reason to believe that any mutation that has emerged to date is linked to increased disease severity,” he added.
Professor Brendan Wren, professor of Microbial Pathogenesis, London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, added: “The emergence of new genetic variants is a natural process that viruses undergo during protracted epidemics.
“Invariably the mutations responsible for the new genetic variants are neutral and have little effect on the transmission and virulence of the virus.”