Johnson told a Downing Street briefing that the “new variant of the virus” had altered the government’s understanding of the coronavirus situation in the country.

“Because the science is clearly changing and has changed in the sense that our understanding of this new virus, its transmissibility, has been radically shifted just in the last 24 hours,” Johnson said.

“We simply can’t ignore that and that’s why we’re taking these extra steps today to protect the country.”

Some key points about Covid-19 mutation

Question: What is the Covid-19 mutant strain?

Answer: It has been named VUI-202012/01 (the first “Variant Under Investigation” in December 2020). It is defined by a set of 17 changes or mutations. One of the most significant is an N501Y mutation in the spike protein that the virus uses to bind to the human ACE2 receptor. Changes in this part of spike protein may, in theory, result in the virus becoming more infectious and spreading more easily between people. As of December 13, this new variant had been identified predominantly in the south and east of England where cases had been rising.

Question: When did the new strain emerge?

Answer: The variant was first spotted in late September and now accounts for 20 per cent of viruses sequenced in Norfolk, 10 per cent in Essex, and 3 per cent in Suffolk. There is no evidence it was imported from abroad, so is likely to have evolved in the UK.

Question: How is it different from the original Covid-19 virus?

Answer: Public Health England say this new strain may result in the virus becoming more infectious and spreading more easily. Johnson said this particular strain may be “up to 70 per cent” more transmissible than earlier strains.

Question: Is it something to worry about?

Answer: There have been many mutations in the Covid-19 virus since it emerged in 2019 and it is not at all uncommon for this to happen. There is nothing to suggest this new strain is more likely to cause serious disease. However, if the new strain spreads more easily then it is possible more people will end up being infected in a shorter period of time.

Question: Why is this strain getting so much attention?

Answer: While other variants have been identified in the past, it appears this particular strain is spreading quite fast, meaning it could be more transmissible, and therefore warrants further investigation.

Question: Will the vaccine be affected?

Answer: It is highly unlikely that this mutation would fail to respond to a vaccine. The vaccine produces antibodies against many regions in the spike protein, and it is unlikely a single change would make the vaccine less effective.

Question: What are scientists doing now?

Answer: They are growing the new strain in the lab to see how it responds. This includes looking at whether it produces the same antibody response and how it reacts to the vaccine. It could take up to two weeks for this thorough process to be complete.

Question: Why do viruses mutate?

Answer: Mutations in viruses are a natural part of evolution. The pressure on the virus to evolve is increased by the fact that so many millions of people have now been infected.

Question: Is this the first novel strain detected in the UK?

Answer: A number of variants have been detected using sequencing studies in the UK. A specific variant (the D614G variant) has previously been detected in western Europe and North America which is believed to spread more easily but not cause greater illness. But it is thought this is the first strain that will be investigated in such detail by PHE.

Question: What examples are there of other virus strains?

Answer: The Danish government culled millions of mink after it emerged that hundreds of Covid-19 cases in the country were associated with variants associated with farmed minks – including 12 cases with a unique variant, reported on November 5. In October a study suggested that a coronavirus variant that originated in Spanish farm workers spread rapidly throughout Europe and accounted for most UK cases.

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