Mutation in New U.K. COVID Strain Found in Brazil Last Spring, Now in Four Countries

A genetic mutation within a new coronavirus strain recently detected in the U.K. was first spotted in Brazil all the way back in April.

Scientists in the U.K. have identified a new strain of the SARS-CoV-2 virus, which causes COVID-19, that is reportedly significantly more transmissible than the original based on early evidence—although it does not appear to cause a more severe form of the disease.

Viruses mutate all the time, and this new strain—dubbed the "B.1.1.7 lineage" or "VUI–202012/01"—contains 23 separate mutations in its genetic code.

One of the mutations—known as "N501Y"—was detected in Brazil as far back as April, Dr. Julian Tang, a clinical virologist from the University of Leicester, U.K., told Newsweek.

Subsequently, scientists spotted the N501Y mutation in parts of Australia and the U.S. earlier this year.

"The N501Y mutation was circulating independently and separately in Brazil in April, 2020, and in the U.S. and Australia in June-July, 2020," Tang said.

This mutation affects the spike proteins of the SARS-CoV-2 virus, which enable it to latch onto human cells and break in, causing disease.

Scientists think this specific mutation in combination with the others detected in the new strain may be working together to make the variant more transmissible—perhaps up to 70 percent more, according to early estimates.

"When you put various mutations together, the combination can have a different effect," Peter Horby, chairman of the U.K. government's New and Emerging Respiratory Virus Threats Advisory Group, told The Telegraph.

"Any single one of those may have been seen elsewhere, like N501Y, but this constellation of multiple mutations would appear to be very new."

The new SARS-CoV-2 virus B.1.1.7 strain—containing the N501Y mutation—was first detected in the southeast of England in September and is spreading fast in the region, with scientists estimating that it may account for 60 percent of all new infections.

The strain has also been detected in other parts of the U.K. and a handful of cases have now also been confirmed in Denmark, the Netherlands, Australia, Italy and the British overseas territory of Gibraltar—located on the southern tip of the Iberian Peninsula—in recent weeks.

There are also unconfirmed reports that the new strain is present in Belgium, while it may also be circulating undetected in France and South Africa, officials have suggested.

More than 40 countries around the world have now introduced temporary bans on arrivals from the U.K. in order to prevent the spread of the new strain.

London in lockdown
A woman puts on a face covering while illuminated by Piccadilly Circus on December 21, 2020 in London, England. London and large parts of southern England were moved into a newly created "Tier 4" lockdown, closing non-essential shops and limiting household mixing. Peter Summers/Getty Images