Explainer-The new coronavirus variant in Britain: How worrying is it?

From Kate Kelland
LONDON (Reuters) - A new variant of the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic coronavirus is spreading rapidly in the UK and is causing great concern among its European neighbors, some of whom have disrupted transport links.
The strain, referred to by some experts as the B.1.1.7 line, is not the first new variant of the pandemic virus, but is said to be up to 70% more transmissible than the previously dominant strain in the UK.
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ARE THE MATTERS REASONED?
Most scientists say yes. The new variant has quickly become the dominant burden in parts of southern England in cases of COVID-19 and has been linked to an increase in hospital stay rates, particularly in London and the adjacent county of Kent.
While it was first seen in the UK in September, in the week of December 9 in London, 62% of COVID-19 cases were due to the new variant. This compared to 28% of the cases three weeks earlier.
The governments of Australia, Italy and the Netherlands say they have discovered cases of the new strain. It was identified in the Netherlands in early December.
Some cases of COVID-19 with the new variant have also been reported by Iceland and Denmark to the ECDC, Europe's agency for disease surveillance. According to media reports in Belgium, cases were also found there.
"It is right to take it seriously," said Peter Openshaw, professor of experimental medicine at Imperial College London. Shaun Fitzgerald, visiting professor at Cambridge University, said the situation was "extremely worrying".
WHY?
The main concern is that the variant is significantly more transmissible than the original variety. It has 23 mutations in its genetic code - a relatively high number of changes - and some of them affect its ability to spread.
Scientists say it's roughly 40% -70% more transmissible. The UK government said Saturday it could increase the "R" reproductive rate by 0.4.
This means it is spreading faster in the UK, making the pandemic even harder to control there and increasing the risk of it spreading rapidly in other countries as well.
"The new B.1.1.7 ... still seems to have the human lethality that the original had, but with increased transferability," said Martin Hibberd, professor of emerging infectious diseases at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine .
DO COVID-19 VACCINES PROTECT AGAINST THIS VARIANT?
Scientists say there is no evidence that vaccines currently in use in the UK - made by Pfizer and BioNtech - or other COVID-19 vaccines under development do not protect against this variant.
"It is unlikely that this will have more than little or no impact on the effectiveness of the vaccine," said Adam Finn, vaccine specialist and professor of pediatrics at Bristol University.
UK chief advisor Patrick Vallance also said COVID-19 vaccines are sufficient to generate an immune response to the variant of the coronavirus.
"We are not seeing any ... gross changes in the spike protein that are making the vaccine less effective so far," said Julian Tang, professor and clinical virologist at Leicester University.
DOES THE NEW VARIANT INFLUENCE THE TEST?
To a certain extent, yes.
One of the mutations in the new variant affects one of three genomic targets used by some PCR tests. This means that in these tests this target area or "channel" would be negative.
"This has affected the ability of some tests to detect the virus," said Robert Shorten, an expert in microbiology with the Association for Clinical Biochemistry & Laboratory Medicine.
Because PCR tests generally detect more than one gene target, a mutation in the spike protein will only partially affect the test, reducing the risk of false negative results.
ARE THERE OTHER SIGNIFICANT SARS-CoV-2 VARIANTS?
Yes. In the past few months, strains of the COVID-19 virus have emerged in South Africa, Spain, Denmark and other countries and are also a cause for concern.
So far, however, it has been found that it does not contain mutations that make it more deadly or more able to evade vaccines or treatments.
DID THIS NEW VARIANT MADE IN THE UK?
Vallance said on Saturday he thought the new line might have started in the UK. Some scientists in Europe have recognized British expertise in genome surveillance to identify the mutation.
"The UK has one of the most comprehensive genetic surveillance programs in the world - 5 to 10% of all virus samples are genetically tested. Few countries do better," Steven Van Gucht, director of viral diseases at the Belgian Institute of Health, told a press conference on Monday.
(Additional reporting by Philip Blenkinsop in Brussels, editing by Josephine Mason and Mark Heinrich)

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