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Explainer: Everything we know about the new Covid-19 virus strain


by Jennifer McShane
14th Dec 2020
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As tougher Tier 3 restrictions are announced for London, a new strain of coronavirus has been identified in southern England. Here’s what we know about it so far


London and also parts of Essex and Hertfordshire will face Tier 3 restrictions from Wednesday following “very sharp, exponential rises” in cases there, according to British health secretary Matt Hancock.

“We’ve currently identified over 1,000 cases with this variant, predominantly in the south of England, although cases have been identified in nearly 60 different local authority areas,” he explained, however, he said there was nothing to suggest at this stage that the variant was more likely to cause serious disease and that the vaccine, “should still be effective.”

“But it shows we’ve got to be vigilant and follow the rules and everyone needs to take personal responsibility not to spread this virus,” he said.

What we know so far

There have been a number of Covid-19 variants already (it’s totally normal for any virus), but this one is significant in that has a “quite a few more mutations” than normal and appears to be spreading at a quicker pace, according to Britain’s Chief Medical Officer Chris Whitty.  He also said:

  1. There’s no evidence that it’s more dangerous than other variants, or that the symptoms of this variant are any worse or different.
  2. The current Covid-19 tests work against this variant.
  3. It would be “not impossible, but pretty surprising” if the vaccines already in development wouldn’t be effective against the virus.
  4. Tests are being carried out to confirm that the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine is effective against this variant.

“Is it getting more frequent because it’s in a part of the country which the rate of increase is going faster anyway… or is it that this virus itself is possible to transmit more easily? That isn’t really yet clear,” he added at a press conference on Monday. “The main reason we’re bringing it to people’s attention is the question about it spreading more quickly and that may be cause and effect or it may not,” he said. “There isn’t huge selection pressure on this virus… When a very high proportion of the population has been vaccinated, at that point, the new variants that emerge are more likely to be ones which actually are able partially to escape from a vaccine. But there’s no reason to think that would be happening at the moment.”

“Too early”

It is “too early” to know if a new strain of coronavirus confirmed in Britain has emerged in Ireland, our deputy chief medical officer has said.

Dr Ronan Glynn said Irish public health officials only received formal notification of the new Covid-19 strain on Monday, at the same time as the UK government publicly announced the news.

“We had formal notification of that variant through our official early warning system with European colleagues and the UK, and there’s very little information available to us at the moment,” Dr Glynn said at a press briefing.

“Obviously, we will be interested in the potential effects of this variant in terms of transmission, but it’s really too early at this stage to say whether or not it has any such effects. We just really need to wait for more information to come out. It’s too early at this stage to say whether the variant has been seen in this country.”

Another two deaths and 264 cases of Covid-19 have been recorded in the Republic.

Main photograph: Unsplash


Read more: “I’ve made the decision not to travel home for Christmas”: How to get through an unfamiliar December

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