A new variant of COVID sweeps through England

How worried should we be about this new variant of COVID-19?
22 December 2020

Interview with 

Zania Stamataki, University of Birmingham


A stylised coronavirus particle next to a woman wearing a facemask.


UK Health Secretary Matt Hancock dropped what sounded like a virological bombshell in Parliament that a new variant of COVID-19 was sweeping through England. The announcement completely broadsided the media; there'd been no prior warning this was coming and no background briefings, so speculation was predictably rife and the story stole the front pages of Tuesday's dailies with alarming headlines about mutant coronaviruses. But was this in fact just a smokescreen to distract attention from the fact that over 10 million people were simultaneously plunged into a more restrictive tier than they had been before, or does this new viral variant really pose a significant threat, and how was it picked up in the first place? Chris Smith spoke to Zania Stamataki, an immunologist based in Birmingham...

Zania - Viruses mutate. They change, as they grow, and it's quite normal for them to turn into different variants of their previous entities as time passes. So this virus came into humans back in December last year, it had a year to change around the world. And it's now quite natural that we are going to see different forms of this virus in different parts of the world.

Chris S - This one that's been picked up and has made headlines being in parts of London, the Southeast of England, what's its significance to the coronavirus outbreak in general?

Zania - So Public Health England is monitoring viruses because we need to understand how they are changing, so that we can monitor our immunity to these viruses as well. This particular variant has been watched, because it has quite a few changes from the original described virus. So not just one mutation, but several mutations combined.

Chris S - How was it picked up in the first place?

Zania - We keep surveillance on these viruses. We are taking isolates from patients from different parts of the country and different parts of the world. And we are very used to this because we used to do it for influenza. And when a virus is starting to look like its proteins that it has on their surface, like you've heard of the spike protein that coats this virus particle, and if it starts to get a little bit different, then we're keeping a look for that to see if our vaccine preparations are going to still be effective against it. And if our immune responses are going to keep up with the virus.

Chris S - And to what extent do you think this is contributing to a bigger outbreak in the South East of England? Because one of the other things that the health secretary said was,, this might be linked to the fact that we're seeing surging case numbers in some places and where we see those surge in case numbers, we see more of these variants, but he did say, we don't know if it's cause or effect.

Zania - Exactly. So we don't know if it's the chicken or the egg. We know that this variant is prevalent in the South of the country, but we don't know if it is in the South of the country, because it is prevalent. It is more likely that the virus emerged in the South of the country. And then the spread was more abundant in that area, that meant that more people are having it. So it's more likely linked to our own practices. We have very highly populated cities in the South of the country. People are taking a lot of public transport. It's more difficult for them to protect themselves, than in less densely populated regions. So if a virus emerges, that is a variant in that region, it's going to spread.

Chris S - What will be the nature of the experiments that institutions like Porton Down will do to test whether or not this change to the virus is giving it the ability to sidestep our immune response.

Zania - Well, first of all, they are going to look at isolating this virus, and they're going to try to get it to infect in the laboratory. And in fact, with coronaviruses, this is very easy. They are delighted to grow in the lab. As I can say from my own personal experience. So they're going to grow it in the lab, but then we're going to expose it to antibodies from the blood of patients that have recovered from the virus from different parts of the country. So if somebody that has recovered from the virus in the West Midlands, that has got antibodies that recognise this virus, then the virus hasn't changed sufficiently. If the virus is not being recognised, then the virus has changed enough to escape our antibody response.

Chris S - And presumably similar sorts of experiments will be done using antibodies made from vaccinated individuals, either humans or animals, to test the possibility that these changes might enable the virus to put itself beyond the reach of the protection conferred by the vaccine. We hope it won't be, but I suppose there's a theoretical possibility it could.

Zania - Exactly. And these experiments are not difficult to do. We are having virologists chase the virus, to look at surveillance of how the virus is changing. And we have immunologists chase the human immune response to see how our antibodies are evolving to keep up with the virus. So it's a game of cat and mouse really,

Chris S - But overall you're more kind of reassured, than alarmed, reassured by the fact that surveillance has picked this up, but not alarmed because this is kind of par for the course with these sorts of viruses.

Zania - It is totally part of the course. I am not alarmed, the virus is expected to change. In fact, this is a known feature of coronaviruses. And in fact, I would like people to be reassured as well, that the technologies that we have to make vaccines now are so advanced, that it is really easy for us to tweak the vaccine preparation, to keep up with new viral variants, as they emerge in the years to come.


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