This blog was updated on the 1st March 2021.
There are a number of new coronavirus variants that have now been detected in the UK. In some of the variants the virus is becoming about 50% more infectious and up to 30% more deadly. With 1 in 3 people who have coronavirus showing no symptoms, the NHS is still encouraging everyone to act as if they have the virus, even if they have no symptoms.
What are the new variants?
SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, is consistently assessed for new variants and checked to see if these variants make any changes to the transmissibility, symptoms, and severity of the virus. There have already been thousands of mutations to SARS-CoV-2, but these are mostly insignificant. Only a small minority of mutations are significant enough to change the virus enough to impact us.
Viruses naturally mutate and it’s a normal part of a virus’ life cycle. Public Health England has now identified 38 cases of COVID-19 which have shown to feature a specific set of mutations which cause concern. There are variants from the UK, South Africa and Brazil which are all being investigated and closely monitored.
As of 1st March, up to 6 cases of the latest variant from Brazil have been detected in the UK, with this variant sharing similarities with the South African variant, which is believed to be more transmissible and may respond less well to current vaccines.
Is the new UK variant more deadly?
There is currently no evidence to suggest that the new variant is more likely to lead to a serious illness or an increased risk of death compared to the original variant that started the pandemic. Studies are continuing to investigate this.
What are the symptoms of the new variants?
The symptoms of the new variants are the same as the initial variant of coronavirus that was first identified in China. The symptoms of coronavirus are described here.
Why are these new variants more transmissible?
The new variants carry a mutation to the gene which gives rise to the surface spike proteins. Mutations in the spike protein – the part of the virus that makes it infectious – can change how the virus interacts with human cells. However, the reason why this variant is more transmissible is still being investigated.
What action should I take?
Because 1 in 3 people who have coronavirus show no symptoms and so could be spreading it without realising, it is more important than ever to take positive action to prevent its spread. We should act as if we have the virus even if we do not show any symptoms.
The way to control the spread of this virus is the same, whatever the variant. Everyone should continue to follow the government guidelines to stay at home, social distance, wear a face mask in enclosed spaces, and limit any unnecessary journeys.
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What does this mean for COVID-19 vaccinations?
It is thought that the coronavirus vaccinations will still provide a very good level of protection against the new variants but further studies are ongoing to check the protection provided.
Can tests detect the new variants?
Yes, polymerase chain reaction (PCR) tests are able to detect this new variant. You can find more on COVID-19 testing, including how it works and where to get one here.