We still do not fully understand the clinical implications of this mutation
It is an inherent property of all respiratory viruses like influenza, seasonal coronaviruses, to mutate all the time. Mutation in respiratory viruses is an adaptive process. Sometimes, some mutations can be lethal for the virus, which means they inhibit the virus from reproducing -- mutations can be neutral, and some may have an impact.
The Sars-CoV-2 has also been undergoing mutation. Recently, there have been reports from UK, Netherlands, Denmark, and Australia of mutation of the Sars-CoV-2 (causing the ongoing pandemic) that has resulted in a new variant of the virus (not a new strain of the virus) called the coronavirus VUI-202012/01 (Variant Under Investigation, year 2020, month 12, variant 01).
It is worth mentioning here that countries where this new variant have been identified have advanced capacity to perform virus genome sequencing, which puts them in an advantageous situation to identify such mutations in the virus. It could possibly be that this variant is circulating in other countries as well, but is yet to be identified.
This new variant looks different from other previous mutations in Sars-CoV-2 and has raised concerns. There is modest evidence suggesting that this new variant of Sars-CoV-2 is more transmissible, and is speculated to be the reason for the recent increase in the number of Covid-19 cases in London, South East, and East of England regions.
This increased transmissibility with the new variant has not been identified with other mutations in the virus. The new variant is spreading quickly, replacing other variants, and is becoming the dominant variant in London and East of England. Available epidemiological data from the UK suggest that gender distribution of cases infected with this new variant is similar, and most cases are aged <60 years.
We still do not know the clinical implications of this new variant, including prognosis of disease and risk of reinfection with the new variant. Thorough investigation is underway to understand the detailed effect of the new variant.
We must remember understanding the clinical impact and epidemiological patterns of this new variant of a virus takes time, and we will have more data in coming weeks and months, which will improve our understanding.
Another big concern with the emergence of this new variant is whether the available vaccines against Covid-19 will be effective against this new variant. At this point, there is no reason to believe that the vaccines will not work against this new variant. For that to happen, it will take a couple of years and many more mutations.
There still remain lots of unknowns with this new variant. Researchers and scientists are working round the clock to unravel the implications of this new variant within the context of the ongoing pandemic. However, what we do know is that the spread of Sars-CoV-2 is not solely determined by a new variant of the virus.
We also know that 80% of Covid-19 infections are spread only by 10% of infectious people. This new variant or any other variant of Sars-CoV-2 will not spread if we avoid close contact, wear masks when in crowded places or where physical distancing is not possible, wash hands repeatedly, and isolate ourselves if we develop respiratory symptoms such fever, cough, or difficulty in breathing.
Dr Nusrat Homaira MBBS, MPH, PhD is Respiratory Epidemiologist, UNSW Sydney.