SVG's Leading Infectious Specialist Speaks About New COVID Variant

This country’s leading Infectious Disease Specialist, Dr. Jerrol Thompson, while appearing as a guest on VC3’s Roundtable Talk last week, discussed the new variant of the coronavirus that has been on the rise in Southern England.

Why is this variant causing concern?

Three things are coming together that mean it is attracting attention:
  • It is rapidly replacing other versions of the virus
  • It has mutations that affect part of the virus likely to be important
  • Some of those mutations have already been shown in the lab to increase the ability of the virus to infect cells
All of these come together to build a case for a virus that can spread more easily.

Thompson says this new variant, it’s purported to be probably spread a little bit more easily, but it hasn’t given any indication that it causes more severe illness or so.

He went on to discuss the differences between this new variant of the virus and the coronavirus that we are familiar with.

“How different it is to the coronavirus that we’ve been seeing all the time? We know that there have been a number of mutations and so there are always mild, small mutations taking place. The degree of this mutation is something that is still being looked at, but they have been able to recognise that it is a mutation.”

How much faster is it spreading?

It was first detected in September. In November around a quarter of cases in London were the new variant. This reached nearly two-thirds of cases in mid-December.

You can see how the variant has come to dominate the results of testing in some centres such as the Milton Keynes Lighthouse Laboratory.

Mathematicians have been running the numbers on the spread of different variants in an attempt to calculate how much of an edge this one might have.
But teasing apart what is due to people’s behaviour and what is due to the virus is hard.
The figure mentioned by Prime Minister Boris Johnson was that the variant may be up to 70% more transmissible. He said this may be increasing the R number – which indicates if an epidemic is growing or shrinking – by 0.4.
During the talk he said: “It is really too early to tell… but from what we see so far it is growing very quickly, it is growing faster than [a previous variant] ever grew, but it is important to keep an eye on this.”
There is no “nailed on” figure for how much more infectious the variant may be. Scientists, whose work is not yet public, have told me figures both much higher and much lower than 70%.

But there remain questions about whether it is any more infectious at all.

How far has it spread?

It is thought the variant either emerged in a patient in the UK or has been imported from a country with a lower ability to monitor coronavirus mutations.
The variant can be found across the UK, except Northern Ireland, but it is heavily concentrated in London, the South East and eastern England. Cases elsewhere in the country do not seem to have taken off.

Data from Nextstrain, which has been monitoring the genetic codes of the viral samples around the world, suggest cases in Denmark and Australia have come from the UK. The Netherlands has also reported cases.

Has this happened before?

The virus that was first detected in Wuhan, China, is not the same one you will find in most corners of the world.
The D614G mutation emerged in Europe in February and became the globally dominant form of the virus.

Another, called A222V, spread across Europe and was linked to people’s summer holidays in Spain.


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