Truth about Covid mutation that threw Christmas plans into disarray
Who knew what and when about Britain’s Covid mutation? PHE first discovered the fast-spreading variant in October but didn’t raise the alarm until last week – amid claims scientists held back discovery to bounce No10 into Tier Four
- Public Health England was first alerted to existence of the strain in mid-October from patient in September
- Yet ministers were not made aware of the variant until last Monday, on December 13, almost two months later
- On Friday, the PM was then presented doom-mongering data by Nervtag showing it was 70% more infectious
Questions are being raised about why Government scientists didn’t sound the alarm over the new mutated strain of coronavirus until last week despite discovering it two months ago – amid claims data may have been held back to force Number 10 into a rash lockdown.
Top experts have also slammed the claim peddled by Boris Johnson and Chris Whitty that the variant is around 70 per cent more infectious than regular Covid, saying that the figure appeared to have been plucked from thin air in a desperate bid to justify the crushing Christmas curbs.
Boris Johnson sparked fury on Saturday night after he cancelled Christmas for more than 16million people living in London and across the South East. Five days of social mixing were also slashed to just one day for the rest of the UK. He said there was ‘no alternative’ way to stop the new variant after being presented with doom-mongering data from his scientists.
Furious Tory MPs said this morning the Government had again been ‘bounced by the science’ by experts who have previously got their forecasts and modelling wrong. They questioned the timing, which gave No10 little breathing room and came after MPs went on holiday, preventing the curbs from being voted down in Parliament.
Online records show the first case of the mutated strain was identified in mid-October at Public Health England’s laboratory in Milton Keynes, where experts are studying random samples from Covid-positive Brits to keep track of the virus as it evolves.
The new variant — named VUI-202012/01 — was detected in a positive swab taken from a patient in Kent on the September 20, when the country was recording just 3,700 daily cases.
Despite an explosion in infections in October, PHE did not alert the Government or its scientists to the mutated strain’s existence until December, by which point more than 1,100 people were confirmed to have had the new version of the virus.
At the start of the month information about VUI-202012/01 was passed to the New and Emerging Respiratory Virus Advisory Group (NERVTAG) committee, which advises England’s Chief Medical Officer, Chris Whitty. The group first discussed the strain at a December 11 meeting and began modelling its severity on the UK’s epidemic.
Ministers were not made aware of the variant until last Monday, almost two months after its initial discovery, when they were told it was more infectious and probably behind the continued rise in cases in London and the South East. Even with that information, the Prime Minister insisted on Wednesday that lockdown loosening plans for Christmas would still go ahead, saying it would be ‘frankly inhuman’ to scrap them just days before they came into effect.
But on Friday, Nervtag told Professor Whitty that the VUI 202012/01 strain was spreading more quickly and could be up to 70 per cent more infectious than the normal version of the virus. The PM was then presented with the gloomy data the following morning, which led to the screeching Christmas U-turn on Saturday night.
Independent scientists have also expressed criticisms about the 70 per cent figure after 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.
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
Tory MPs have blasted the Government’s scientific advisers, including Sir Patrick Vallance and Professor Chris Whitty, of forcing Number 10 into making rash lockdown decisions
Boris Johnson is facing mounting Tory fury over his decision to announce a new Covid crackdown after MPs went on holiday
Carl Heneghan, professor of evidence-based medicine at Oxford University’s Nuffield Department of Primary Care, expressed scepticism over the 70 per cent figure.
He said: ‘I’ve been doing this job for 25 years and I can tell you can’t establish a quantifiable number in such a short time frame.’ He added ‘every expert is saying it’s too early to draw such an inference’.
Who knew what and when about Britain’s Covid mutation?
September 20: Patient in Kent became the first person to test positive for the new strain. At that point, the UK was recording just 3,700 new cases of the virus each day.
Mid-October: The sample wasn’t analysed until weeks later at Public Health England’s Lighthouse Lab in Milton Keynes, where experts are studying genomic sequences of Covid-19 to keep track of its mutations.
Not all mutations are logged as new strains as soon as they are found, because some fade away or turn out to be totally insignificant, which may explain why ministers were not alerted to its existence.
December 11: The government’s New and Emerging Respiratory Virus Advisory Group (NERVTAG) committee first discussed VUI-202012/01 on 11 December, one of its members, Professor Andrew Hayward, told Sky News.
December 13: A total of 1,108 cases associated with the strain had been detected by PHE, although this is likely to be an underestimate because PHE is sent random swab samples to analyse, rather than every positive test.
December 14: Health Secretary Matt Hancock is briefed by Government scientists about the strain, known as VUI – 202012/01.
SAGE had been struggling to work out why infections continued to rise in the South East during the national lockdown, which drove cases down in every other part of the country.
Mr Hancock broke the news to the public at a Downing Street press conference, saying the variant may have been behind the surge in infections in London and Kent.
December 16: Boris Johnson promises plans to relax lockdown for Christmas get-togethers would still go ahead, saying it would be ‘frankly inhuman’ to scrap the move.
December 19: Chris Whitty and Sir Patrick Vallance attended a meeting of Nervtag – the New and Emerging Respiratory Virus Threats Advisory Group – to discuss the severity of the strain.
Professor Neil Ferguson – the top scientific adviser who quit SAGE after breaking lockdown rules to see his married lover – was one of the experts in attendance
December 20: Key findings showing from the meeting showing the variant was 70 per cent more transmissible were presented by the Chief Medical Officer to Boris Johnson the following morning.
However, minutes from the meeting published revealed the expert committee had in fact only ‘moderate confidence’ that the new strain was more transmissible than other variants.
Mr Johnson used an evening press conference to announce new Tier Four restrictions for London and the South East, crushing Christmas plans for 16million people.
December 21: More than a dozen countries – including France, Germany, Italy, Ireland and Canada – banned travel to and from the UK as part of an international crackdown to contain the mutant strain.
Expert warns new mutant Covid will likely become the ‘dominant global strain’ as Gibraltar becomes FIFTH place outside UK to confirm a case
The mutated coronavirus spreading rapidly in the UK will likely become the dominant global strain, a SAGE expert warned today after No10 revealed Gibraltar has become the fifth place outside of Britain to confirm a case of the new variant.
Professor Calum Semple, an infectious diseases expert at the University of Liverpool, claimed the new variant would ‘out-compete all the other strains’ because it has the evolutionary advantage of being able to spread more easily.
The strain, currently called VUI-202012/01, has already been confirmed in Denmark, Gibraltar, the Netherlands, Australia and Italy. There have also been unverified reports of cases in Belgium.
France and South Africa also believe they may have cases of the mutation, but these have not been confirmed. French health minister Olivier Veran admitted it is ‘entirely possible’ the new variant is already circulating in France, despite tests not picking it up yet, while officials in South Africa say they’ve detected a strain very similar to the UK version.
Scotland and Wales have both picked up cases of the strain in recent weeks, although it is spreading mainly in London and the South East of England, where it’s thought to account for 60 per cent of all new infections.
It is now present in all parts of the UK apart from Northern Ireland, but First Minister Arlene Foster said it’s ‘probable’ the virus is already circulating there, too.
When asked on Sky News whether the mutant coronavirus will become the dominant strain around the world, Professor Semple said: ‘I suspect it will, or strains like it will.
‘Because the virus has the evolutionary advantage in transmitting more quickly, it will out-compete all the other strains, and so it will naturally do that.
‘As immunity comes into the community more widely, then you’ll start to see more pressure on the virus and you’re more likely to see other escapes of other variations.’
Boris Johnson’s spokesman revealed today that the British overseas territory of Gibraltar had identified at least one case of the strain.
Earlier this morning, Italy’s health ministry said it had detected a patient infected with the virus. The Italian patient flew from the UK to Rome in the last few days with his partner, who did not test positive. The pair are now isolating.
Maria Van Kerkhove, the World Health Organisation’s Covid-19 technical lead, revealed on Sunday there had been nine instances of the strain in Denmark, two in and one in the Netherlands
Two cases in Australia were detected in two passengers who landed in New South Wales after flying from the UK, said the state’s chief health officer Kerry Chant.
In South Africa, a strain with a similar genetic make up to the one from the UK has been found, but experts are not yet sure if it is the same.
MPs accused Chief Medical Officer Professor Chris Whitty and Chief Scientific Adviser Sir Patrick Vallance of ‘stepping back into the shadows when it suits them’ to leave ministers to take the flak for controversial decisions.
Professor Heneghan said there was no doubt this time of the year, the ‘height of the viral season’, was a difficult time for the NHS. But he said failure to put out the basis of the figures was undermining public trust.
He added: ‘I would want to have very clear evidence rather than “we think it’s more transmissible” so we can see if it is or not. It has massive implications, it’s causing fear and panic, but we should not be in this situation when the Government is putting out data that is unquantifiable.’
He added: ‘They are fitting the data to the evidence. They see cases rising and they are looking for evidence to explain it.’
Professor Heneghan said that if it was true the new variant was more transmissible ‘we should be locking down the whole country’ as people leaving the capital to avoid restrictions would spread it.
A top German virologist also today heavily played down fears about Britain’s mutant virus strain today. Christian Drosten said the 70 per cent figure was ‘simply called that’, suggesting that preliminary scientific estimates might have been overblown by politicians.
‘I wonder whether a scientist gave an estimate, perhaps asked what he would say if he had to give a figure, and then it takes on a life of its own. Then it enters politics and politicians use this figure and the media takes it up,’ Drosten said.
‘Suddenly there’s a figure out there, 70 per cent, and nobody even knows what it means,’ he told Deutschlandfunk radio.
‘The fact that top politicians are reciting scientific content to the media, saying that there’s been a mutation and that cases are growing by this and that much here and there, that’s unusual.’
Drosten, the director of virology at Berlin’s Charite Hospital and an often-quoted expert during the pandemic, also said it was unclear whether the surge in cases in Kent and the South East was really caused by the new strain at all.
The growing scepticism about the new strain came as Mr Johnson held crisis talks with ministers after France banned lorries carrying freight from the UK and countries around the world ended flights to Britain amid fears of the new coronavirus variant.
The Prime Minister chaired meeting of the Government’s Cobra civil contingencies committee after warnings of ‘significant disruption’ around the Channel ports in Kent.
Hauliers were urged to stay away from the area because of potential problems as the end of the Brexit transition period also looms on December 31.
Kent Police said they were implementing Operation Stack in a bid to ease potential congestion, while the Department for Transport said Manston Airport was also being prepared as another contingency measure against the anticipated level of disruption.
Countries including France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Belgium, Poland, Austria, Denmark, Ireland, and Bulgaria announced restrictions on UK travel following the disclosure that the highly infectious new strain is widespread across the South East of England.
The international crackdown came amid rising Tory anger over the Government’s latest coronavirus curbs as MPs demanded Parliament be recalled this week.
Former minister Sir Desmond Swayne said ‘it does have all the characteristics of the Government being bounced by the science, as it was right at the beginning of the arrangements when we first went into lockdown last March’.
He told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: ‘The arrangements for Christmas were explicitly voted on by Parliament. If they’re to be changed then in my view, Parliament should vote again.’
He added: ‘Parliament voted explicitly for a certain set of arrangements, it seems to be perfectly proper therefore that Parliament should be consulted when those are changed, irrespective of the Government acting in an emergency, nevertheless it’s perfectly proper to recall Parliament at the beginning of this week to at least ratify those changes.
‘Explain to us – we are after all a democracy, explain to the elected representatives the evidence that they have and why they’ve reached this decision.’
Sir Desmond suggested the Government had known for a while it was going to launch a fresh crackdown but waited for MPs to break for Christmas before announcing the measures in order to avoid a Commons backlash.
He said: ‘Yes, they’ve been looking at it [the new variant] since September and how convenient when Parliament went into recess on Thursday suddenly they were then able to produce this revelation.
‘Let’s see the evidence then, let’s have Parliament back and show us and convince us, come clean.
‘I want Parliament to be recalled so we can scrutinise properly in a democracy decisions that are being made which affect our economy radically and our liberty.’
He said a failure to recall Parliament would demonstrate the Government is ‘frightened of its Parliament’.
Sir Iain Duncan Smith, the former Tory leader, said it is ‘clear that Tier 4 is much the same as a third lockdown’ and the decision should be urgently debated by MPs.
Writing in The Telegraph he said: ‘It’s too easy just to blame Government ministers for all these decisions – what about their scientific advisers, who have a vital role in deciding these restrictions but are adept at stepping back into the shadows when it suits them?’
He added: ‘Why did they not alert ministers to the dangers earlier? Especially when, as we now know, scientists learnt about this mutation back in September.’
Sir Iain pointed to previous mistakes made by the Government’s scientific advisers and said that ‘when epidemiologists try to produce forecasts they are no more accurate than economists’.
Sir Charles Walker, the vice chairman of the influential 1922 Committee of Tory MPs, echoed a similar sentiment yesterday as he said: ‘The Government, in my view, knew on Thursday, possibly even Wednesday, that they were going to pull the plug on Christmas but they waited till Parliament had gone.
‘That, on top of everything else, is a resigning matter. I am not asking for the Government to collapse. I am asking for a secretary of state to take some responsibility.’
Health Secretary Matt Hancock said yesterday that ministers were only informed on Friday that an increase in infections in London and the South East of England was linked to a mutant new strain of coronavirus.
Mr Johnson then announced the new Tier 4 measures and tighter Christmas rules yesterday.
The new Tier 4 restrictions mean more than 16 million people across London, the South East and East of England have now been told to stay at home as much as they can.
Whitehall sources suggested the stay at home message could last until most over-50s have received a coronavirus vaccine – a timeline which would likely take the country to Easter or beyond.
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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