British scientists on Tuesday said they are trying to determine whether the rapid spread of a new variant of the coronavirus in southern England is linked to key mutations they have detected in the strain.
“Efforts are under way to confirm whether or not any of these mutations are contributing to increased transmission”, the COVID-19 Genomics UK (COG-UK) Consortium, said in a statement.
Experts said that the mutations include changes to the important “spike” protein that the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus uses to infect human cells, but that it is not yet clear whether these are making it more infectious.
The government on Monday cited a rise in new infections, which it said may be partly linked to the new variant, named “VUI – 202012/01”. Public Health England said that, as of December 13, 1,108 COVID-19 cases with the new variant had been identified, predominantly in the south and east of England.
However, the COG-UK experts said that there is currently no evidence that VUI – 202012/01 is more likely to cause severe COVID-19 infections, or that it would render vaccines less effective. Mutations, or genetic changes, arise naturally in all viruses. In the case of SARS-CoV-2, these mutations are accumulating at a rate of around one to two mutations per month globally.
So far, only a minority of the mutations are likely to change the coronavirus in any significant way – for example, making it more able to infect people, or less sensitive to immune defences.