A new variant of the Covid-19 virus is behind a sudden spike in cases in London and the Southeast of England, experts believe.
Health Secretary Matt Hancock told the House of Commons yesterday that almost 60 local authorities had identified a total of more than 1,000 Covid infections caused by the new variant. “And numbers are increasing rapidly,” he added.
The latest strain was “highly unlikely” to make vaccines less effective or to be more deadly, Hancock said, but the newcomer appears to be “growing faster than the existing variants”.
The rapidly spreading strain is understood to have originated in Kent and “has been suggested as one reason why cases continued to rise in the county during the lockdown”, writes The Times’ science editor Tom Whipple.
“Viruses mutate with predictable regularity, and it’s rarely a concern,” Whipple continues. “Pure dumb chance can lead to one strain predominating and nothing functional will have changed to cause it. So why the worry?”
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According to Professor Thomas Connor, a bioscience expert at Cardiff University, research suggests the new strain may bind to human cells more easily than previous strains, leading to an “obvious increase in case numbers”. The mutation also appears to have changed the shape of the virus, which “could change how the immune system sees it”, Connor told the paper.
Sky News’ science correspondent Thomas Moore says that while the mutation is “not wholly unusual”, it is something that scientists “will be keeping a very close watch on”.
Or as Connor puts it, the changes seen in the new mutation were “always going to make us twitchy. Even if it is just random chance, we want to be looking at it.”