The new variant features 17 alterations to the original coronavirus strain, many of them to the virus’s spike protein which vaccines are being developed to target
The new strain of Covid-19 has 17 mutations, scientists have discovered.
UK experts have been analysing the new variant of coronavirus and say they have uncovered 17 alterations from the original strain of the killer disease, which they described as “a lot”.
Many of the changes have happened to the virus’s spike protein, which it uses to latch onto human cells and cause illness.
This is significant because most Covid-19 vaccines being developed, including the Pfizer jab that has already begun to be rolled out in the UK, are effective by targeting this protein.
It is feared this could stop people becoming immune to coronavirus if they have been infected with a different strain than the vaccine can protect them against.
Scientists including England’s chief medical officer Chris Whitty have said there is “currently no evidence” that the new variant will stop the vaccine from working.
The strain has also been spotted in Denmark and Australia.
Professor Nick Loman, from the Institute of Microbiology and Infection at the University of Birmingham, is a member of the UK’s Covid-19 Genomics UK Consortium which is studying the mutations. He said: “There are actually 17 changes that would affect the protein structure in some way that distinguishes this variant from its kind of common ancestor of other variants that are circulating, which is a lot.
“It’s striking. There’s a really long branch going back to the common ancestor, and it’s a matter of great interest as to why that is the case.”
Most vaccines work by training the immune system to recognise the virus’s spike proteins and attack them when the virus tries to infect them. But if the spike proteins are altered through mutations, it is possible the virus may be able to slip past the body’s defences.
The new strain, called VUI – 202012/01 was first picked up in September in Kent. It has been linked to the explosion in cases in London and the South East of England which saw the capital and parts of Essex and Hertfordshire placed into Tier 3 lockdown restrictions from today. There have been more than 1,000 confirmed cases of the new strain, mostly in southern England. The exact locations have not been revealed.