New Mutation of Coronavirus Emerges—Should I Be Worried, Is Vaccine at Risk?

A mutated strain of the coronavirus that causes COVID-19 currently circulated in the U.K. is unlikely to affect vaccine effectiveness, experts say.

Health Secretary Matt Hancock told members of parliament in the House of Commons on Monday that genome scientists had identified a variant of SARS-CoV-2 that could be associated with an ongoing surge in cases across the south east of England.

He said the strain seemed to be spreading faster than existing variants and officials had recorded more than 1,000 cases so far, spanning nearly 60 regions.

Hancock noted the World Health Organization (WHO) had been notified and assured the public there was "nothing to suggest that this variant is likely to cause serious disease" and that it is "highly unlikely this mutation would fail to respond to a vaccine."

In the wake of the announcement, scientists have stressed it is normal for mutations to arise naturally as a virus circulates among the population, and said thousands of strains have been logged in the SARS-CoV-2 genome since the pandemic began.

Dr. Zania Stamataki, a viral immunologist at the University of Birmingham, in the U.K., said it was "neither cause for panic nor unexpected" that a new SARS-CoV-2 strain had surfaced, saying in a statement that the changes in a virus can result from immune responses that are triggered by the human body as it attempts to combat the infection.

Dr. Stamataki said: "This virus doesn't mutate as fast as influenza and, although we need to keep it under surveillance, it will not be a major undertaking to update the new vaccines when necessary in the future. This year has seen significant advances take place, to build the infrastructure for us to keep up with this coronavirus."

COVID-19 Genomics UK (COG-UK), a collective of agencies and scientists conducting rapid whole-genome sequencing on SARS-CoV-2, said in an advisory on Monday that a probe is ongoing to verify if the new strain contributes to more transmission.

"There is currently no evidence that this variant (or any other studied to date) has any impact on disease severity, or that it will render vaccines less effective, although both questions require further studies performed at pace," the advisory group said.

The U.K. has recorded over 1.8 million COVID infections and at least 64,402 deaths as of December 14. On Monday, the country's public health agency announced 232 deaths within 28 days of a positive COVID test and 20,263 new cases of the virus.

The county has adopted a tiered system that means regions face restrictions based on the severity of their local COVID cases. London, the capital of England, is entering into the highest tier three restrictions as of Wednesday due to its rising infections.

At the time of writing, the general consensus in the scientific community about the new strain is there is currently no reason to panic, and testing is ongoing.

"There is no evidence the newly-reported variant results in a more severe disease," said Prof Wendy Barclay, an infectious disease expert at Imperial College London.

"This variant contains some mutations in spike protein that is the major target of vaccines, and it will be important to establish whether they impact vaccine efficacy by performing experiments in the coming weeks." Prof. Barclay continued.

Genome experts say the vaccines developed against COVID, which started rollout out to the public this month, can be adapted quickly to combat mutations.

"The three new vaccines reported in recent completed clinical trials use technologies that encode information for coronavirus spike protein, pass on the information to our own cells, which do the hard work of producing the protein to stimulate our immune system," Dr. Stamataki wrote in an article published on Monday in The Guardian.

"It is remarkably simple for us to change the recipe to update our vaccines when the need arises, and to keep them relevant for different parts of the world."

The U.K. health secretary said on December 2 as the first batch of vaccines were being given that the county had backed seven vaccines and ordered 357 million doses so far. The vaccine approved for use inside the U.K. was developed by Pfizer/BioNTech.

For now, studies into the new variant will continue, experts say.

Prof Julian Hiscox, Chair in Infection and Global Health, University of Liverpool, said: "We should be cautious and focus efforts on understanding the transmission of this virus and if necessary introducing control measures to prevent its spread.

"There is a lag between sampling and information. Currently there is no evidence that this [new] virus will evade the vaccine or will lead to increased disease or death."

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Denzel Kennedy a front line receptionist receives the first of two injections with a dose of the Pfizer/BioNtech covid-19 vaccine at the Hurley Clinic in London, as hundreds of Covid-19 vaccination centres run by local doctors begin opening across England, on December 14, 2020 in London, England. Aaron Chown - WPA Pool/Getty