New variant of Covid could be behind fast spread, Matt Hancock announces

‘Initial analysis suggests this variant is growing faster than the existing variants,’ says health secretary

Ashley Cowburn
Political Correspondent
Monday 14 December 2020 17:03 GMT
New variant of Covid could be behind fast spread, Matt Hancock announces.mp4

A new variant of coronavirus may be behind a faster spread of the virus in the south-east of England, Matt Hancock has revealed.

Speaking in the Commons, the health secretary said the government had notified the World Health Organisation (WHO) about the new strand, but stressed there is nothing to suggest it causes a more serious disease.

He said scientists working at the Porton Down laboratory were analysing the variant and added it is “highly unlikely” it will impact the Covid-19 vaccine that the NHS began administering last week.

Updating MPs on the latest situation, Mr Hancock also confirmed Greater London and parts of Essex and Hertfordshire will go into the toughest Tier 3 of restrictions from Wednesday morning.

“Over the last few days, thanks to our world class genomic capability in the UK, we have identified a new variant of coronavirus, which may be associated with the faster spread in the south-east of England," he said.

The cabinet minister added: “Initial analysis suggests this variant is growing faster than the existing variants. 

"We’ve currently identified over 1,000 cases with this variant, predominantly in the south of England, although cases have been identified in nearly 60 different local authority areas.

“Numbers are increasing rapidly,” he said. “We’ve notified the World Health Organisation about this new variant and PHE is working hard to continue its analysis at Porton Down.”

According to WHO, “when a virus replicates or makes copies of itself, it sometimes changes a little bit”, which is referred to a “mutations”.

The body adds: “The virus with the new mutation(s) is called a ‘variant’ of the original virus. Most changes have little or no impact on the virus’ properties.

“Occasionally, they result in a virus that is better adapted to its environment compared to the original virus. In that case, it may become more dominant in a specific environment. This process of selection of successful variants is called ‘viral evolution’ and this is a natural process all viruses go through.”

Alan McNally, a professor in microbial evolutionary genomics at the University of Birmingham, said in response to the health secretary’s statement: “Over the past few weeks a few of the UK PCR testing labs have picked up on this new variant. Supported by The Covid-19 Genomics UK consortium and rapid genomics it has been identified incredibly quickly.

“Hopefully the narrative here is how amazing our surveillance has been at picking this up. Huge efforts are ongoing at characterising the variant and understanding its emergence. 

"It is important to keep a calm and rational perspective on the strain as this is normal virus evolution and we expect new variants to come and go and emerge over time. It’s too early to be worried or not by this new variant, but I am in awe of the surveillance efforts in the UK that allowed this to be picked up so fast.”

Announcing tougher restrictions for millions of people in England, Mr Hancock said it was necessary to move London from Tier 2 to Tier 3 to prevent the NHS being overwhelmed.

"Over the last week we have seen very sharp, exponential rises in the virus across London, Kent, parts of Essex and Hertfordshire," he said.

"We do not know the extent to which this is because of the new variant but no matter its cause we have to take swift and decisive action which unfortunately is absolutely essential to control this deadly disease while the vaccine is rolled out. In some parts of these areas the doubling time is around every seven days."

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