In the United Kingdom, a new version of SARS-Cov-2 is intensifying quickly. VUI (Variant Under Investigation) 202012/01, or the B.1.1.7 lineage, is the latest reference given to this new SARS-CoV-2 variant. Public Health England (PHE) reported that 1,108 cases with this variant were found as of December 13 predominantly in the South and East of England. 62% of the new cases of covid-19 registered in London during the second week of December were due to this new variant. The New and Emerging Respiratory Virus Threats Advisory Group (NERVTAG), which advises the UK government on the threat of new and evolving respiratory viruses, said on 18 December that the new variant could supposedly increase the number of infectious diseases by up to 0.93. The group said it has "moderate confidence" that the current variant exhibits a significant increase in transmissibility.
It is believed that the new UK variant has emerged from the southeast of England in September 2020. The strain has also been identified in countries like the Netherlands, Denmark, and Belgium. In genomic surveillance, the variant was identified by COVID-19 Genomics UK (COG-UK), a group that studies UK data on genome sequencing. The strain is found to be a subset of the gene D614G, which has appeared independently in multiple locations. Public Health England (PHE) said full-genome sequencing, epidemiology, and simulation evidence indicates that the current variant transmits more easily than other variants. It also underlined, that there is "no evidence" as of now that the variant is more likely to cause significant illness or mortality.
A risk evaluation brief released by the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control reported that phylogenetic analysis showed that the cluster of the new variant differs from the original Wuhan strain by 29 nucleotide substitutions. Three sample sequences from Denmark and one from Australia collected in November 2020, has been found to cluster with the UK variant. This indicates that there has been an international spread although the extent is yet unknown.
In the UK and South Africa, the latest strain emerged separately, and scientists believe this is not uncommon as viruses undergo multiple mutations. The variant clade which has been found in South Africa is one of the mutations of the UK strain and is called 501Y.V2. In both the strains from the UK and South Africa, two major mutations have been found in the essential spike protein that allows the virus to enter and hijack human cells. Both are the N501Y mutation, where, at the 501st location in the chain, the amino acid N mutates to Y, and the H69/V70 deletion, where two amino acids in the spike protein are removed. The N501Y mutation was first detected in April in Brazil but has so far persisted at a low frequency.
The latest Covid-19 strain can be detected by the swab test, according to the Chief Medical Officer of the United Kingdom, Chris Whitty. There are 23 genetic variations in the current variant, many attributed to modifications in a virus-made protein. Similarly, Dr. Moncef Slaoui, chief scientific advisor for the vaccine delivery initiative of the US government, said that the probability of the latest variants being immune to current vaccine candidates is remote, but not 'inexistent.' The coronavirus develops and mutates at a much slower pace, unlike influenza viruses. The current vaccine candidates that are under development phase and some of which have been given emergency use status by the FDA, may or may not be effective against this new variant. However, experts expect the virus to produce mutations as more and more individuals get vaccinated, which will help make it immune to vaccination in the near future.