Your questions about the new Covid-19 strain answered by an expert virologist

A new variant of Covid-19 was recently found by Public Health England, and the World Health Organisation (WHO) was notified.

But how dangerous is the new strain, and what does this mean for the new vaccines being rolled out later this month?

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We asked principal lecturer at the University of Brighton and a fellow of the Institute of Biomedical Science, Sarah Pitt, whether we should be concerned about the new Covid strain.

Should we be worried about the appearance of this virus strain?

“Not worried, but aware that it is a reminder that SARS-CoV-2 is a new virus and there are still things scientists need to learn about it.

“All through the pandemic, we have seen certain strains popping up and become the major one in certain areas. This is probably because the slight variation in the virus code makes them a bit more efficient at spreading between people, so it becomes the main one in circulation for a while.”

What are the reasons for this strain infecting people more quickly?

“The changes in the virus code mean slight differences in the shape of the spike protein. This is the bit that you can see sticking out of the virus in all the pictures.

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“This spike protein sticks to human cells. So the slight chance seems to make them better at sticking to human cells. So essentially the strain is more infectious. But it is not more likely to cause serious Covid-19 disease than any other strain as far as we know so far.”

Why has this particular virus strain been highlighted by the government?

“I have no idea about this. As mentioned above there have been several ‘dominant’ strains which have been noticed over the course of the pandemic so far. We usually find out about them because the scientists monitoring the virus publish a paper which is reported in the news. This is the only one which has been announced in Parliament. I am not sure why that was done.”

Will it affect the effectiveness of the current vaccine(s)?

“The changes in the SARS-CoV-2 code which have been reported are in places where changes have been found before.

“One is in a place in the virus code which makes it different to SARS-1, so that will have been taken into account when the vaccine was designed. The other mutation is the one seen in mink in Denmark, which has led to the culling of lots of animals.

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“So, these types of variation are happening all the time with this virus, and all over the world. The vaccines are all being trialled in several different countries and the ones which have reported their final results have all shown all the vaccines to work very well.

“At the moment, there is no reason to suspect that it will affect how effective the vaccine will be. Of course it remains to be seen when we have more information about the new strain.”