New virus strain in the UK is mutating “at a much slower rate” than seasonal influenza, according to the World Health Organization.
Seasonal influenza mutates often that scientists constantly come up with new vaccines to inoculate the public against the virus every year.
U.K. officials told the WHO that the Covid-19 vaccines are as effective against the new strain, but it requires more research. While viruses mutate, not every mutation makes a virus more contagious.
“SARS-CoV-2 is mutating at a much slower rate than influenza,” WHO chief scientist Soumya Swaminathan said. “And so far, even though we’ve seen a number of changes and a number of mutations, none has made a significant impact on either the susceptibility of the virus to any of the currently used therapeutics, drugs, or the vaccines under development and one hopes that that will continue to be the case.”
WHO officials stressed that officials from the U.K. have announced the new variant could be up to 70% more transmissible than the original virus strain. Dr. Mike Ryan, executive director of the WHO’s health emergencies program, explained it was uncertain if the increase in a spread in the U.K. is caused by the mutation or human behavior.
“We’ve seen an estimate of a small increase in the reproductive number by the U.K.,” he said. “It remains to be seen how much of that is due to the specific genetic change in the new variant. I suspect some.”
According to Maria Van Kerkhove, head of the WHO’s emerging diseases and zoonosis unit, U.K. officials believe that the mutation led to an increase in the reproductive rate of the virus from 1.1 to 1.5. Each person infected with the variant is predicted to infect another 1.5 people, up from 1.1 when infected with the original variant.
She noted that officials are looking into three elements of the new variant. She added that scientists are studying whether it spreads more easily, whether it leads to more or less severe sickness, and how the antibody reacts to an infection. Van Kerkhove and others said that there does not seem to be any impact on the effectiveness of the coronavirus vaccines on the new variant.
The UK government’s New and Emerging Respiratory Virus Threats Advisory Group said it had “moderate confidence” that the new variant “demonstrates a substantial increase in transmissibility compared to other variants.”
Chris Whitty, England’s chief medical officer, explained that the new virus strain in UK “contains 23 different changes,” which he believes is an unusually large number. Whitty noted the variant caused 60% of new infections in London, which have doubled in the last week alone.
“Given that we’re entering a period of inevitable mixing, I think there will be some increases in numbers over the next few weeks,” Chief Scientific Adviser Patrick Vallance said, stressing that local restrictions could be tightened rather than eased in the new year.
Meanwhile, Public Health England (PHE) said that a mutation in the Covid-19 spike protein could expand its transmissibility. Scientists in the U.K. are holding more research on this subjectt.