A new strain of coronavirus is spreading in England, the Health Secretary announced today (Monday).
The mutated variant of Covid-19 is “growing faster” than previous strains, he told the House of Commons.
But Mr Hancock says there is no evidence this newly-discovered strain is resistant to the vaccine being rolled out across the UK, reports MirrorOnline.
It’s being analysed by Government scientists, and Mr Hancock says it could be one reason why infection rates have been rising in London and the South East.
Rocketing figures have caused the capital, parts of Essex and areas of Hertfordshire to be subjected to tighter restrictions from midnight on Wednesday (December 16).
Here is more information about the new strain and how it came about.
How do viruses mutate?
All viruses naturally change – this new ‘variant’ has mutated from the original virus.
Some viruses change quickly and others more slowly.
In the case of SARS-CoV-2 – the virus which causes COVID-19 – it changes more slowly than viruses such as HIV or the flu.
Scientists say that’s due to a ‘proofreading mechanism’ which corrects mistakes when it makes copies of itself.
How worried should we be?
Public Health England said 1,108 cases with the variant strain of the virus which causes Covid-19 have been identified, as of Sunday – but the way to stop infection is the same as with the original strain.
Dr Susan Hopkins, Test and Trace and PHE joint medical adviser, said: “We are investigating a new strain of SARS-CoV-2, predominantly in Kent and the surrounding areas.
“It is not unexpected that the virus should evolve and it’s important that we spot any changes quickly to understand the potential risk any variant may pose.
“There is currently no evidence that this strain causes more severe illness, although it is being detected in a wide geography especially where there are increased cases being detected.
“The best way to stop infection is to stick to the rules – wash our hands, wear a face covering and keep our distance from others.”
Could it make the vaccine not work?
Government experts do not believe the changes in the variant make it sufficiently different that existing vaccines will not work against.
However they continue to analyse its genetic code and how it behaves at the UK’s specialist military base at Porton Down.
What is the risk of it spreading quicker?
New pathogens to our bodies spread more quickly.
If this mutation differentiates the variant further away from types of coronaviruses the body is used to encountering – such as the common cold – it could make it more virulent.
The Government has suggested the variant is spreading faster but have released no data to confirm this.
If you’ve had one strain, could you catch the other strain as natural immunity doesn’t count?
Given the limited information released by the Government on this, it’s not currently certain whether the variant makes repeat infection more likely.