COVID variant ‘taking over’ UK and likely to dominate elsewhere: expert

By Kate Kelland

LONDON (Reuters) – A coronavirus variant first found a few months ago in Britain is now “taking over” and causing 98% of all cases in the UK, the scientist leading the country’s variant-tracking research said on Thursday.

Sharon Peacock said the UK variant, known as B.1.1.7, also appears to be gaining a firm grip in many of the 100 or so other countries it has spread to in the past few months.

“It’s around 50% more transmissible – hence its success in really taking over the country,” said Peacock, director of the COVID-19 Genomics UK (COG-UK) consortium of scientists monitoring mutations in the coronavirus.

“We now know that it has spread across the UK and causes nearly all of the cases of COVID-19 – about 98%,” she told an online briefing for Britain’s Royal Society of Medicine.

“It appears to be the case that the other variants are not getting a foothold in this country.”

The B.1.1.7 variant, first detected in September 2020, has 23 mutations in its genetic code – a relatively high number of changes – and is thought by experts to be 40%-70% more transmissible than previously dominant variants.

Peacock also noted data released on Wednesday from a UK study which found that B.1.1.7 has “significantly higher” mortality, with death rates among those infected with it between 30% and 100% greater than among those infected with previous variants.

“There is a small increase in the likelihood of death from the variant,” she said.

The World Health Organization says B.1.1.7 is one of several “variants of concern,” along with others that have emerged in South Africa and Brazil. The variants are mutant versions of the SARS-CoV-2 virus that causes COVID-19, which has already killed more than 2.7 million people in the pandemic.

B.1.1.7 has spread to about 100 countries, according to WHO data, and some of those, including France, Denmark and the United States, have reported swift rises in the proportion of their COVID-19 cases being caused by it.

Peacock said evidence from the UK suggests B.1.1.7. is likely to become dominant elsewhere too.

“Because of its transmissibility, once it’s introduced, it does have that advantage over other circulating variants – so it is the case that B.1.1.7 appears to be travelling around the world and really expanding where it lands.”

Public Health England (PHE) also said on Thursday that a new coronavirus variant had been identified in the UK in two people who had recently been in Antigua. PHE said it shared some traits of other variants but was not classed as concerning for now.

(Reporting by Kate Kelland, Editing by William Maclean)

More transmissible UK coronavirus variant found in 10 U.S. states, CDC says

By Julie Steenhuysen

CHICAGO (Reuters) – A new, more transmissible variant of the coronavirus first discovered in Britain has been detected in 10 U.S. states, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said on Friday, warning that it could become the dominant circulating variant in the United States by March.

The variant, known as B.1.1.7, is believed to be twice as transmissible as the current version of the virus circulating in the United States.

Its rapid spread will increase the burden on health resources at a time when infections are surging, further sapping strained healthcare resources and increasing the need for better adherence to mitigation strategies, such as social-distancing and mask-wearing, the CDC said in its weekly report on death and disease.

It also increases the percentage of the population that needs to be vaccinated to achieve protective herd immunity to control the pandemic, the CDC said.

(Reporting by Julie Steenhuysen; Editing by Paul Simao)

The new coronavirus variant in Britain: How worrying is it?

By Kate Kelland

LONDON (Reuters) – A new variant of the pandemic SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus is spreading rapidly in Britain and prompting high levels of concern among its European neighbors, some of which have cut transport links.

The strain, referred to by some experts as the B.1.1.7 lineage, is not the first new variant of the pandemic virus to emerge, but is said to be up to 70% more transmissible than the previously dominant strain in the United Kingdom.

ARE THE CONCERNS JUSTIFIED?

Most scientists say yes. The new variant has rapidly become the dominant strain in cases of COVID-19 in parts of southern England, and has been linked to an increase in hospitalization rates, especially in London and in the adjacent county of Kent.

While it was first seen in Britain in September, by the week of Dec. 9 in London, 62% of COVID-19 cases were due to the new variant. That compared to 28% of cases three weeks earlier.

The governments of Australia, Italy and the Netherlands say they detected cases of the new strain. It was identified in the Netherlands in early December.

A few cases of COVID-19 with the new variant have also been reported to the ECDC, Europe’s disease monitoring agency, by Iceland and Denmark. Media reports in Belgium say cases have also been detected there.

“It is right to take it seriously,” said Peter Openshaw, a professor of experimental medicine at Imperial College London. Shaun Fitzgerald, a visiting professor at the University of Cambridge, said the situation was “extremely concerning.”

WHY?

The main worry is that the variant is significantly more transmissible than the original strain. It has 23 mutations in its genetic code – a relatively high number of changes – and some of these are affecting its ability to spread.

Scientists say it is about 40%-70% more transmissible. The UK government said on Saturday it could increase the reproduction “R” rate by 0.4.

This means it is spreading faster in Britain, making the pandemic there yet harder to control and increasing the risk it will also spread swiftly in other countries.

“The new B.1.1.7 … still appears to have all the human lethality that the original had, but with an increased ability to transmit,” said Martin Hibberd, professor of emerging infectious disease at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine.

WILL COVID-19 VACCINES PROTECT AGAINST THIS VARIANT?

Scientists say there’s no evidence that vaccines currently being deployed in the UK – made by Pfizer and BioNtech – or other COVID-19 shots in development will not protect against this variant.

“It’s unlikely that this will have anything more than a minor, if any, effect on the vaccine’s effectiveness,” said Adam Finn, a vaccine specialist and professor of pediatrics at Bristol University.

Britain’s chief scientific adviser Patrick Vallance also said COVID-19 vaccines appeared to be adequate in generating an immune response to the variant of the coronavirus.

“We are not seeing…any gross changes in the spike protein that will reduce vaccine effectiveness so far,” said Julian Tang, professor and clinical virologist at Leicester University.

DOES THE NEW VARIANT AFFECT TESTING?

To some extent, yes.

One of the mutations in the new variant affects one of three genomic targets used by some PCR tests. This means that in those tests, that target area, or “channel”, would come up negative.

“This has affected the ability of some tests to detect the virus,” said Robert Shorten, an expert in microbiology at the Association for Clinical Biochemistry & Laboratory Medicine.

Since PCR tests generally detect more than one gene target, however, a mutation in the spike protein only partly affects the test, reducing that risk of false negative results.

ARE THERE OTHER SIGNIFICANT SARS-CoV-2 VARIANTS ABOUT?

Yes. Strains of the COVID-19-causing virus have emerged in recent months in South Africa, Spain, Denmark and other countries that have also raised concern.

However none, so far, has been found to contain mutations that make it more deadly, or more likely to be able to evade vaccines or treatments.

DID THIS NEW VARIANT ORIGINATE IN BRITAIN?

Vallance said on Saturday he thought the new variant might have started in the UK. Some scientists in Europe have credited British expertise in genomic surveillance for identifying the mutation.

“The UK has one of the most comprehensive genetic surveillance programs in the world – 5% to 10% all virus samples are genetically tested. Few countries do better,” Steven Van Gucht, head of viral diseases at the Belgian Institute of Health, told a news conference on Monday.

(Additional reporting by Philip Blenkinsop in Brussels, editing by Josephine Mason and Mark Heinrich)