New COVID Strain in U.K. May Be Better at Infecting Children, Scientists Say

A new strain of COVID may spread more easily in children than previous forms of the virus, top U.K. scientists believe.

Early evidence suggests the strain, named VUI-202012/01, may be better at spreading than past versions, but it is not believed to make people sicker or more likely to die. It was first identified in the U.K. in September. The strain is not thought to affect the effectiveness of COVID vaccines and pharmaceutical firms Moderna and Pfizer have said they are running tests in the hopes of proving this.

At a question-and-answer session with journalists on Monday attended by Newsweek, the new and emerging respiratory virus threats advisory group (Nervtag), which advises the U.K. government, revealed that the strain may behave differently in children when compared with others.

So far in the pandemic, COVID has not affected children and teenagers as badly as adults. While children can catch and pass on COVID, they have been found to be less likely to fall ill or die. Experts believe this is because children have lower levels of what is known as the ACE2 receptor, which the virus uses to invade the body.

Professor Neil Ferguson, Nervtag member and director of the MRC Centre for Global Infectious Disease Analysis at Imperial College London, said there was a "hint" in the available data that the mutation might be better at infecting children.

During the most recent England-wide lockdown, from November 5 to December 2, there was a shift in the age of people getting infected to include more children, he said. These infections involved both the variant and other versions of COVID, or what Ferguson called the "non-variant."

This shift was expected, he said, as the lockdown would have prevented some adults but not children from coming into contact with one another as schools remained open. Measures imposed by the government included the closure of pubs, restaurants, non-essential shops, entertainment and leisure venues, hairdressers and beauty salons.

What emerged "consistently" in the data over a five or six-week period was that the proportion of cases of the variant in those under the age of 15 was "statistically significantly higher" than the non-variant virus, Ferguson said.

Professor Wendy Barclay, head of the Department of Infectious Disease at Imperial College London and a fellow Nervtag member, said: "Let's be clear, we're not saying that this is a virus which specifically attacks children or is any more specific in its ability to infect children."

She said the previous form of coronavirus was not as good at finding ACE2 receptors and invading cells, meaning adults—who have higher levels of the receptor in their nose and throat than children—"were easy targets and children were difficult to infect."

"The newer virus has an easier time doing all of that," she said. Children may therefore be "equally susceptible" to the virus as adults. "Given their mixing patterns, you would expect to see more children being infected. It's not because the virus is specifically targeting them. But it's just that it's now less inhibited... to get into the children."

Ferguson followed Barclay's comments by saying: "This is a hypothesis at the moment which has not been proven. But if it were true, then this might explain a significant proportion, maybe even the majority of the transmission increase seen. But a lot more work needs to be done to actually explore this in more detail."

Peter Horby, chair of Nervtag and professor of emerging infectious diseases at the Centre for Tropical Medicine and Global Health, University of Oxford, said: "This is one of the bits of data where you need to be cautious. It's very early days, and there's still a lot of uncertainty about many aspects of this new variant."

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A stock image shows a masked woman giving a child some anti-bacterial gel. British scientists believe a new strain of the coronavirus may infect children more easily. Getty