Dr Justin O’Grady (right) is a group leader who works on pathogens and rapid diagnostics at the Quadram Institute and the UEA’s Norwich Medical School. Dr Andrew Page (left) is head of informatics at the Quadram Institute and both scientists are part of the Norwich team working on sequencing the virus as part of the COVID-19 Genomics UK Consortium (COG-UK).
The Health Secretary’s announcement in the House of Commons about a “new variant of coronavirus which may be associated with the fastest spread in the south-east of England” needs to be considered in context.
All RNA viruses mutate. As a virus makes copies of itself, occasionally a random change happens that propagates, sometimes the change or mutation is significant but often it’s not. We can expect a virus to mutate.
With SARS-CoV-2 these mutations happen at a rate of around one to two mutations per month and, as a result of this on-going process, many thousands of mutations have already arisen in the SARS-CoV-2 genome since the virus first emerged in 2019.
The vast majority of the mutations observed in SARS-CoV-2 have no apparent effect on the virus and only a very small minority are likely to be important and change the virus in a significant way (for example, a change in the ability to infect people; cause more severe disease; or make vaccines ineffective.)
Here in Norwich at the Quadram Institute, together with our collaborators in COG-UK, we are sequencing more SARS-CoV-2 than the rest of the world combined. This gives us very powerful data to work from and we know this virus is relatively stable and does not mutate rapidly.
Other viruses, however, like seasonal influenza (‘flu) frequently undergo rapid changes and that is why new vaccines have to be developed every year for ‘flu. The good news is that SARS-CoV-2 is more stable. There is also currently no evidence to suggest that the new variant has any impact on disease severity or vaccine efficacy.
Using genomics, we can tell when two people have an identical, or very similar type of virus which we group into ‘lineages’, and we can see when people have different lineages. It’s like building up a family tree but for the virus.
Here in Norfolk we’ve built up a detailed knowledge of this coronavirus and its lineages that are circulating in the region. They change over time. Some disappear of their own accord. Others also emerge as they’re introduced from different parts of the country or from abroad.
The new variant mentioned by Matt Hancock has been named ‘VUI – 202012/01’ (the first Variant Under Investigation in December 2020). As of 13 December, 1,108 cases with this variant have been identified, predominantly in the South and East of England.
Here in Norfolk we first saw the new variant appear in November and it made up 19 per cent of all cases in the county. The spike in COVID-19 cases seen around Wymondham last month was attributable to the new variant.
It is possible this mutation could make it easier for the virus to pass from one person to another but Norfolk still has a relatively low infection rate and there is a wide range of factors that affect how widely the virus is circulating. More needs to be done to answer that question and Public Health England is working on that.
Ourselves and our colleagues up and down the country are undertaking this type of genomic surveillance precisely so we can identify and track changes in the virus in real time and help understand how we adjust to tackle the virus, if we need to.
In terms of vaccines and therapies for COVID-19 it is also worth noting that the global scientific effort involves developing many different vaccines (including our colleagues at the Norfolk and Norwich University Hospital’s work on the Novavax vaccine trial) and treatment options.
Our message is not to lose sleep over the new variant, it may turn out to be more transmissible, but it is very unlikely to cause more severe disease or have a negative impact on vaccine efficiency.
Most importantly, remember that each of us can help protect our communities and stop the spread of the coronavirus by limiting contact with other people, keeping our distance from others, wearing a face mask, and washing our hands.