A new variant of the virus that causes COVID-19 (SARS-CoV-2) has been identified across the South East of England. The strain was identified due to Public Health England’s (PHE) proactive and enhanced monitoring following an increase in cases seen in Kent and London.
The variant has been named ‘VUI – 202012/01’ (the first Variant Under Investigation in December 2020).
As of 13 December, 1,108 cases with this variant have been identified, predominantly in the South and East of England.
PHE is working with partners to investigate and plans to share its findings over the next 2 weeks. There is currently no evidence to suggest that the strain has any impact on disease severity, antibody response or vaccine efficacy.
High numbers of cases of the variant virus have been observed in some areas where there is also a high incidence of COVID-19. It is not yet known whether the variant is responsible for these increased numbers of cases. PHE will monitor the impact of this in the coming days and weeks.
It is not uncommon for viruses to undergo mutations; seasonal influenza mutates every year. Variants of SARS-CoV-2 have been observed in other countries, such as Spain.
This variant includes a mutation in the ‘spike’ protein. Changes in this part of the spike protein may result in the virus becoming more infectious and spreading more easily between people.
Dr Susan Hopkins, Test and Trace and PHE Joint Medical Advisor, said:
"We are investigating a new strain of SARS-CoV-2, predominantly in Kent and the surrounding areas. It is not unexpected that the virus should evolve and it’s important that we spot any changes quickly to understand the potential risk any variant may pose. There is currently no evidence that this strain causes more severe illness, although it is being detected in a wide geography especially where there are increased cases being detected.
"The best way to stop infection is to stick to the rules – wash our hands, wear a face covering and keep our distance from others.