New variants of coronavirus are emerging that are more infectious than the original one that started the pandemic.
There is some evidence that a variant now dominant in the UK may be more deadly too.
Scientists are urgently studying these mutated versions to understand what threat they pose.
What are these new variants?
There are many thousands of different versions, or variants, of Covid circulating.
Experts’ concerns focus on a few:
- A UK variant that has become dominant in much of Britain and has spread to more than 50 other countries
- A South Africa variant that has also been found in at least 20 other countries, including the UK
- A variant from Brazil
It’s not unexpected that new variants have developed – all viruses mutate as they make new copies of themselves to spread and thrive.
Most of these differences are inconsequential. A few can even be harmful to the virus’s survival. But some can make it more infectious or threatening.
Are the new ones more dangerous?
There is no evidence that any of them cause much more serious illness for the vast majority of people who become infected.
As with the original version, the risk is highest for people who are elderly or have significant underlying health conditions.
For the new UK variant there is some research suggesting it may be associated with a 30% higher risk of death. The evidence is not strong and the data is still uncertain though. More studies are being done.
Measures such as washing your hands, keeping your distance from other people and wearing a face covering will still help prevent infections, and because the new variants appear to spread more easily it is important to be extra vigilant.
What’s happening to the virus?
The UK, South Africa and Brazil variants could be much more contagious or easy to catch than earlier versions.
All three have undergone changes to their spike protein – this is the part of the virus which attaches to human cells.
As a result, these variants seem to be better at infecting cells and spreading.
Experts think the UK or “Kent” strain emerged in September and may be up to 70% more transmissible or infectious, although latest research by Public Health England puts it between 30% and 50%. It is this variant which has driven the latest lockdowns around the UK.
The South Africa variant emerged in October, and it has more potentially important changes in the spike protein than the UK variant.
It has one of the same mutations as the UK one, plus two more that scientists think may interfere more with vaccine effectiveness. One of these may help the virus evade parts of the immune system called antibodies – some research appears to show this.
The Brazil variant emerged in July and has three key mutations in the spike protein that make it similar to the South Africa one.
The UK government has announced a ban on flights from South Africa and South America and Portugal to prevent spread.
Will vaccines still work?
Data on a new coronavirus vaccine from Novavax, that could be approved soon, suggests it can offer good protection against the UK variant and some protection against South Africa one.
Current vaccines were designed around earlier versions of coronavirus, but scientists believe they should still work against the new ones, although perhaps not quite as well.
Early results from Moderna suggest its vaccine is still effective against the South Africa variant.
Vaccines train the body to attack several parts of the virus, not just these sections of the spike protein.
Variants could emerge in the future that are more different again.
Even in the worst case scenario, vaccines could be redesigned and tweaked to be a better match – in a matter or weeks or months, if necessary, say experts.
As with flu, where a new shot is given each year to account for any changes in circulating flu viruses, something similar could happen for coronavirus.
What is being done about it?
More variants will emerge.
Scientists around the world are on the look-out and any important ones will be closely studied and monitored.
The UK’s vaccine development minster says measures have already been put in place to produce another wave of vaccines if needed.