New COVID Strain is Fast-Moving Says England's Chief Medical Officer

England's Chief Medical Officer Chris Whitty has informed the World Health Organization (WHO) that a new strain of COVID-19 has been identified in the country's South East. The new strain is fast-moving but doesn't appear to be deadlier.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson is due hold a press conference on the matter at 4 p.m. local time. Johnson was holding talks with the cabinet this afternoon about a potential response.

The news has sparked fears that a third nationwide lockdown could be in prospect just as millions of Britons prepare to celebrate the festive season and the government faces pressure not to "cancel Christmas."

Whitty issued a statement on Saturday saying "the new strain can spread more quickly."

"There is no current evidence to suggest the new strain causes a higher mortality rate or that it affects vaccines and treatments, although urgent work is under way to confirm this," Whitty said.

"Given this latest development, it is now more vital than ever that the public continue to take action in their area to reduce transmission."

The devolved governments in Scotland and Wales are also holding meetings regarding the new COVID strain, according to a Sky News report.

🚨 Statement from @CMO_England on the new strain of coronavirus identified in the south east: pic.twitter.com/L7xKOASfjT

— Sebastian Payne (@SebastianEPayne) December 19, 2020

Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have imposed differing restrictions throughout the pandemic as the devolved administrations have made decisions tailored to their needs. Rules for England are determined by the Conservative government at Westminster.

Sir Jeremy Farrar, a member of the United Kingdom's Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE), warned on Twitter on Saturday that the new strain of the virus was a worrying development.

"This is a very major concern," Farrar wrote. "Why reducing community transmission is so important. The more virus circulating, under immune pressure, the more likely it is to mutate, evolve and change."

"The new strain of COVID-19 is worrying & real cause for concern & extra caution. Research is ongoing to understand more, but acting urgently now is critical. There is no part of the UK & globally that should not be concerned. As in many countries, the situation is fragile," he said.

"It will take time for the first vaccines to have the impact needed. We must be prepared to respond fast to new and continued challenges now and as we move into 2021. There is still much to learn about COVID-19 and no time for complacency."

Measures to tackle the new COVID strain could include increased travel restrictions in London and the South East. The Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine is still being reviewed by U.K. regulators and it's unclear if it will be effective against the new strain. However, the vaccine is effective against all known strains in circulation, meaning further study of the strain reported today will be essential.

A COVID-19 Vaccination in Chicago, Illinois
A worker at Roseland Community Hospital receives the COVID-19 vaccine on December 18 in Chicago. The hospital began distributing the vaccine to its workers yesterday. There are concerns a new COVID strain in the U.K. could hamper vaccination efforts there. Scott Olson/Getty Images