New coronavirus variant: What is it and is it bad?

Updated: Dec 21, 2020

There is an increase in cases linked to a new variant first detected in late November, when Public Health England was investigating why infection rates in Kent were not falling despite national restrictions.

Health Secretary Matt Hancock said the new variant of coronavirus "may be associated" with the faster spread in the south-east of England.

Last week Hancock said at least 60 different local authorities had recorded Covid infections caused by the new variant.

All viruses mutate over time and new variants emerge regularly and often die out quickly. However, the latest variant has proved hard to 'pin down'. The pressing questions at represent include whether it poses an increased health risk or whether it will pass quickly.

Its recent spread through southern England has caused concern because there is the assumption that it has been found in people who are infecting a lot of other people, possibly because they are ignoring Covid-19 restrictions.

There is currently no evidence that the variant is likely to cause severe disease or mortality but there are ongoing investigations to understand it better.

There is also no information or evidence that the variant causes more severe disease or higher mortality however there are studies being carried out on a number of cases to understand this new variant better.

It is thought the variant either emerged in a patient in the UK or has been imported from a country with a lower ability to monitor coronavirus mutations.

Professor Chris Whitty said: “As a result of the rapid spread of the new variant, preliminary modelling data and rapidly rising incidence rates in the south-east, the New and Emerging Respiratory Virus Threats Advisory Group (Nervtag) now considers that the new strain can spread more quickly. We have alerted the World Health Organization and are continuing to analyse the available data to improve our understanding.”

Mathematicians have been running the numbers on the spread of different variants in an attempt to calculate how much of an edge this one may have.

The figure mentioned by Prime Minister Boris Johnson was that the variant may be up to 70% more transmissible. He said this may be increasing the R number - which indicates if an epidemic is growing or shrinking - by 0.4.

There is currently no evidence to suggest that the Pfizer vaccine won't protect people against the new strain. Further laboratory tests are currently being undertaken as a priority to understand this.