The new, more contagious variant of Covid, first identified in the UK, has now been confirmed in over 20 countries and territories around the world.
While that is concerning, it’s not surprising. The first case can be traced back to late September in the south of England, meaning there was ample time for it to spread undetected around the UK and into other countries.
Now that the alarm has been raised, scientists around the globe are actively searching for and tracking this variant that is thought to pass more easily between people. And the more you seek, the more you can potentially find.
More than 50 countries have imposed travel restrictions on the UK in recent days to help prevent more spread. But WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus has warned against punishing nations that transparently share information, saying “only if countries are looking and testing effectively will you be able to pick up variants and adjust strategies to cope”.
Viruses continually mutate and future new versions of Covid will occur. Science will need to keep up.
What is the new variant?
The new variant first detected in southern England in September is blamed for sharp rises in levels of positive tests in recent weeks in London, south-east England, and the east of England.
About two-thirds of people testing positive in these areas could have the new variant – but this is only an estimate, the Office for National Statistics (ONS) says.
Three things are coming together that mean the new variant 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 build a case for a virus that can spread more easily, says the BBC’s health and science correspondent, James Gallagher.
Experts say the leading vaccines developed in recent months should still work.