British scientists are trying to establish whether the rapid spread in southern England of a new variant of the virus that causes COVID-19 is linked to key mutations they have detected in the strain, they said today.
The mutations include changes to the important “spike” protein that the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus uses to infect human cells, a group of scientists tracking the genetics of the virus said, but it is not yet clear whether these are making it more infectious.
“Efforts are underway to confirm whether or not any of these mutations are contributing to increased transmission,” the scientists, from the COVID-19 Genomics UK (COG-UK) Consortium, said in a statement.
The new variant, which UK scientists have named “VUI – 202012/01” includes a genetic mutation in the “spike” protein, which – in theory – could result in COVID-19 spreading more easily between people.
The British government on Monday cited a rise in new infections, which it said may be partly linked to the new variant, as it moved its capital city and many other areas into the highest tier of COVID-19 restrictions.
As of Dec. 13, 1,108 COVID-19 cases with the new variant had been identified, predominantly in the south and east of England, Public Health England said in a statement.
But there is currently no evidence that the variant is more likely to cause severe COVID-19 infections, the scientists said, or that it would render vaccines less effective.
“Both questions require further studies performed at pace,” the COG-UK scientists said.