Is mutant Covid ripping through UK REALLY 70% more infectious?

BioNTech says it’s ‘highly likely’ its Covid vaccine will work against UK’s mutant strain amid claims variant could make disease LESS lethal

  • Ugur Sahin said he had ‘scientific confidence’ vaccine would still be effective
  • His team are conducting tests on variant, with data to be published in fortnight 
  • Top scientists say if new strain is more infectious, it will likely be less dangerous

Ugur Safin, co-founder of BioNTech, said today it is ‘highly likely’ the firm’s vaccine will work against the mutant strain of Covid spreading rapidly in the UK

The co-founder of BioNTech said today it is ‘highly likely’ the German firm’s vaccine will work against the mutant strain of Covid spreading rapidly in the UK.

Ugur Sahin promised that in the unlikely scenario the jab becomes ineffective, his team could re-engineer the vaccine to target the new variant within six weeks.

His comments come amid concerns the strain might make vaccines less effective because of the mutations that have occurred on the virus’s spike protein, which it uses to latch onto human cells and cause illness.

Alterations to the spike are significant because most Covid vaccines, including Pfizer/BioNTech’s approved jab, work by targeting this protein. It is feared these changes could also stop people from becoming immune if they have been infected with a different strain previously.  

Test are being carried out to see if Pfizer/BioNTech’s jab has the same 95 per cent effectiveness on the new strain as it does on regular Covid. Those results will be ready in a fortnight, Mr Sahin said.

But in attempt to calm fears about the variant, he added: ‘Scientifically, it is highly likely that the immune response by this vaccine also can deal with the new virus variant.’

It comes as top scientists questioned the claim by Number 10’s scientists the new strain was more infectious than regular Covid, saying there is ‘no hard evidence’ to prove it. Instead, the wave of cases in the South East may be the result of the disease spreading in a region where more of the population are susceptible it. 

Professor David Livermore, a medical microbiologist at the University of East Anglia, said even if the strain is more infectious, it will likely be less lethal. 

From an evolutionary standpoint, viruses can transmit more easily if they cause mild or asymptomatic illness because it means carriers continue to go about their daily lives, thereby spreading the contagion more extensively.

His comments come amid concerns the strain might make vaccines less effective because of the mutations that have occurred on the virus’s spike protein, which it uses to latch onto human cells and cause illness (Original illustration of the virus by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention)

Minutes from NERVTAG’s meeting on Friday revealed the expert committee had in fact only ‘moderate confidence’ that the new strain was more transmissible than other variants

Mr Sahin added: ‘We have scientific confidence that the vaccine might protect but we will only know it if the experiment is done… we will publish the data as soon as possible.’

But if needed, ‘in principle the beauty of the messenger technology is that we can directly start to engineer a vaccine which completely mimics this new mutation – we could be able to provide a new vaccine technically within six weeks.’ 

Mr Sahin said the variant detected in Britain has nine mutations, rather than just one as is usually common.

Nevertheless, he voiced confidence that the vaccine developed with Pfizer would be efficient because it ‘contains more than 1,000 amino acids, and only nine of them have changed, so that means 99 percent of the protein is still the same’.

Children may be more easily infected by the new mutant strain of coronavirus, scientists have suggested.

The virus has been less of a problem for children until now, as it finds it harder to get into their body.

But the new strain is suspected by scientists to more efficiently infect them, potentially making them ‘equally susceptible’ to adults.

Children tend to mix more frequently than grown-ups, and this could help to explain figures showing around one in 50 teenagers in England aged 13 to 17 have the virus.

However experts stress that they do not yet know definitively that the new strain is more likely to infect children. Importantly, the new variant is believed not to make people any more ill, and children rarely suffer severe symptoms.

The UK Government has claimed the new Covid variant is 70 per cent more infectious than the normal version of the virus.

It has been blamed on a wave of cases in London and the South East and used to justify plunging 16million people into a Tier 4 lockdown and crushing their Christmas plans.

However, experts say there is ‘little hard data’ to show the country is in the grip of a particularly harmful new type of virus, nor the belief that ever-more authoritarian restrictions will be effective.

Even NERVTAG, the group that came up with the 70 per cent figure and caused widespread panic in Number 10 on the weekend, admitted it had only ‘moderate confidence’ the new strain demonstrates ‘a substantial increase in transmissibility’. 

Professor Livermore said there was even evidence to suggest the variant was less deadly and therefore less of a threat than the original version.

He added: ‘Despite the Government’s recent dramatic show of urgency, this variant appears to have been first identified in Kent as long ago as September, even before the second national lockdown was imposed in England.

‘And that begs two questions: First, if VUI-202012/01 is as harmful as the Government suggests, why did ministers not act sooner, instead of letting the public plan for a relaxed Christmas?

‘Second, if tough new controls are the only answer, why was the lockdown lifted in December?

‘These contradictions arise precisely because of the lack of evidence behind the fear that VUI-202012/01 is sweeping through the country like wildfire.

‘So far its spread seems to be focused on populations that had little exposure to Covid-19 until now, such as in Kent and East Anglia.

‘The problem is that, beyond the frightening headlines, there is little concrete information to underwrite the official claim that the situation is getting ‘out of control’.’

Professor Livermore said even if the disease is more infectious, it will likely mean it is less deadly, and therefore less of a threat to people. 

He added: ‘If it does transpire that the new strain is more easily transmitted, we must remember that such a scenario isn’t always a bad thing.

‘In line with Charles Darwin’s evolutionary theory about the survival of the fittest, it is a fact of life that viruses evolve and adapt. There are a number of new features that can ensure a particular strain survives.

‘One is a lower infectious dose, where the victim needs to inhale fewer virus particles to become infected. Another is the creation of a milder or asymptomatic form of the disease, which means carriers continue to go about their daily lives, thereby spreading the contagion more extensively.

‘Both of these factors underpin the classic development of infectious diseases, including Covid-19 – that they generally evolve over time to become more transmissible and less lethal.

‘That could be what is happening with the new variant of Covid, which is said to be more infectious, though we do not yet know how severe it is.

‘What we do know is that the collateral damage caused by lockdowns is enormous, from business failures and mass unemployment to poor mental health and chronic loneliness.

‘Amid such a devastating backdrop, our Government must not ignore the consequences of failing to look at the hard data on the new variant’s spread in households and hospitals.’   

QUESTIONS ANSWERED ON NEW COVID MUTATION: HOW DID IT HAPPEN, IS IT MORE DANGEROUS AND HOW LONG HAS IT BEEN IN THE UK?

By David Churchill

What has happened to the coronavirus to trigger such concern?

A new strain of Covid has developed which is said to spread far faster. A ‘strain’ is a new version of a virus which has genetic mutations. The new strain is a version of Sars-Cov-2, the coronavirus which causes the disease Covid-19.

It has been named VUI-202012/01. These letters and numbers stand for ‘variant under investigation’ and the month, December 2020.

What makes it so worrying?

This particular variant is defined by up to 17 changes or mutations in the coronavirus spike protein. It is the combination of some of these changes which scientists believe could make it more infectious.

It is thought they could help the virus’ spike protein latch on to human cells and gain entry more easily.

Is it certain the new variation is accelerating the spread of the virus?

No, but scientists say preliminary evidence suggests it does.

Boris Johnson said it may spread up to 70 per cent more easily than other strains of the virus, potentially driving up the ‘R rate’ – which measures how quickly the virus spreads – significantly.

On Saturday night, Mr Johnson said it could drive up the ‘R rate’ by as much as 0.4.

This would be particularly significant in areas such as Eastern England, where it is 1.4, and both London and the South East, where it is 1.3. The ‘R rate’ must remain below 1 for infections to decrease.

Is the new variant more dangerous?

Scientists don’t think so for now. When asked on Saturday night if it was more lethal than the previous strain, Chief Medical Officer Professor Chris Whitty said ‘the answer seems to be ‘No’, as far as we can tell at the moment’.

Yesterday Dr Susan Hopkins, of Public Health England, said there was evidence of people with the new variant having higher viral loads inside them.

But she said this did not mean people would get more ill.

Ravi Gupta, professor of clinical microbiology at the University of Cambridge, said: ‘It’s unlikely it’ll make people sicker, but it could make it harder to control.’

If it does make the virus harder to control and hospitals become overrun, it could pose new challenges.

Are mutations unusual?

No. Seasonal influenza mutates every year. Variants of Sars-Cov-2 have also been observed in other countries, such as Spain.

However, one scientific paper suggests the number and combination of changes which have occurred in this new variant is potentially ‘unprecedented’.

Most mutations observed to date are thought to have happened more slowly. Also, most changes have no effect on how easily the virus spreads.

There are already about 4,000 mutations in the spike protein gene.

What has caused the mutation?

This is still being investigated. One theory is that growing natural immunity in the UK population, which makes it harder for the virus to spread, might have forced it to adapt.

Another theory is that it has developed in chronically ill patients who have fought the virus off over a long period of time, with it then being passed onto others.

Prof Paul Hunter, Professor in Medicine at the University of East Anglia, yesterday said it was ‘plausible’ and ‘highly likely’ this has happened.

However, he stressed it is impossible to prove at the moment.

What evidence is there to support the latter theory?

Some evidence supporting it was spotted when samples of virus were collected from a Cambridge patient. They had been treated with convalescent plasma – blood plasma containing antibodies from a recovered patient.

It is possible the virus mutated during that treatment, developing more resistance to the antibodies. This patient died of the infection, but it’s also possible the mutation has occurred elsewhere.

A paper co-authored by Andrew Rambaut, Professor of Molecular Evolution at the University of Edinburgh, states: ‘If antibody therapy is administered after many weeks of chronic infection, the virus population may be unusually large and genetically diverse…creating suitable circumstances for the rapid fixation of multiple virus genetic changes.’

Professor Hunter added: ‘Mutation in viruses are a random event and the longer someone is infected the more likely a random event is to occur.’

What do these mutations do?

Many occur in what’s called the ‘receptor binding domain’ of the virus’ spike protein. This helps the virus latch on to human cells and gain entry. The mutations make it easier for the virus to bind to human cells’ ACE2 receptors.

It is also possible the changes help the virus avoid human antibodies which would otherwise help fight off infection.

Who detected it?

It was discovered by the Covid-19 Genomics UK (COG-UK) consortium, which carries out random genetic sequencing of positive covid-19 samples.

It is a consortium of the UK’s four public health agencies, Wellcome Sanger Institute and 12 academic institutions.

How long has it been in the UK and where did it start?

As of mid-December, there were more than 1,000 cases in nearly 60 different local authorities, although the true number will be higher.

They have predominantly been found in the south east of England, in Kent and London. It may now account for 60 per cent of the capital’s cases.

But it has been detected elsewhere, including in Wales and Scotland.

The two earliest samples were collected on September 20 in Kent and another the next day in London.

Why was action to tackle it not taken sooner?

Because the potentially greater transmissibility was only discovered late last week by academics.

Has it been detected anywhere else in the world?

One aspect of the new variant, known as a N501Y mutation, was circulating in Australia between June and July, in America in July and in Brazil as far back as April, according to scientists.

It is therefore unclear what role, if any, travellers carrying the virus may have had.

Dr Julian Tang, a Virologist and expert in Respiratory science at the University of Leicester, said: ‘Whether or not these viruses were brought to the UK and Europe later by travellers or arose spontaneously in multiple locations around the world – in response to human host immune selection pressures – requires further investigation.’

Another change, known as the D614G variant, has previously been detected in western Europe and North America. But it is possible that the new variant evolved in the UK.

What can I do to avoid getting the new variant?

The same as always – keeping your distance from people, washing your hands regularly, wearing a mask and abiding by the tier restrictions in your area.

Yesterday Dr Chaand Nagpaul, chair of the British Medical Association, said: ‘The way in which you control the spread of the virus, including this new variant, is exactly the same. It is about continuing stringent measures. The same rules apply.’

Will the new variant reduce the effectiveness of vaccines?

More studies are needed.

Dr Susan Hopkins, of Public Health England, said that until these are carried out scientists cannot be certain whether – and by how much – the new variant reduces the effectiveness of developed vaccines.

She said: ‘The vaccine induces a strong, multiple response, immune response and therefore it is unlikely that this vaccine response is going to be completely gone.’ When mutations happen it is, in theory, possible the antibodies generated by vaccines can be evaded.

But vaccines produce a wide range of antibodies that simultaneously attack the virus from different angles, making it hard for it to evade all of them at once.

Vaccines could also be tweaked to make them more effective if the new mutation does prove to be more resistant to them.

So what are the scientists doing now?

Scientists will be growing the new strain in the lab to see how it responds. This includes looking at whether it produces the same antibody response, how it reacts to the vaccine, and modelling the new strain.

It could take up to two weeks for this process to be complete. 

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