According to reports from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), since November 2020, the UK has reported a rapid increase in COVID-19 cases in London and South East England.
This rapid increase in cases has been linked to a different version, or variant, of the virus that causes COVID-19 (SARS-CoV-2). Public health professionals in the UK are evaluating the characteristics of this new variant.
According to the CDC, viruses are constantly changing through mutation and new variants of a virus are expected to appear over time. Sometimes new variants appear and disappear. Other times, new variants emerge and begin to infect people. Multiple variants of the virus that causes COVID-19 have been documented in the United States and around the world during this pandemic.
The virus that causes COVID-19 is a type of coronavirus, a large family of viruses. Coronaviruses get their name from the crown-shaped spikes on their surfaces. Scientists monitor changes in the virus, including changes in spikes on the surface of the virus. These studies, including genetic testing of the virus, help understand how changes in the virus can affect how it spreads and what happens to people who are infected with it.
Recent reports indicate that approximately 6 out of 10 reported cases in London are caused by the new variant. Genetic analysis of the new variant shows changes in the spikes of the virus and in other parts of the virus. Initial studies suggest that the new variant may be more easily passed from person to person.
So far, UK scientists see no evidence that infections with this variant cause more serious disease.
It is still very early in the identification of this variant, so there is much to learn. More studies are needed on the new variant to understand:
- How widely the new variant has spread in the UK and potentially around the world
- How the new variant differs from previous variants
- How is the disease caused by this variant different from the disease caused by other currently circulating variants
Public health officials are quickly studying the new variant to get more information and to control its spread. They want to know if the new variant:
- It spreads more easily from person to person.
- It causes a milder or more serious illness in people.
- It is detected by currently available viral tests.
- Responds to medications currently used to treat people for COVID-19
- It affects the effectiveness of COVID-19 vaccines. There is no evidence that this is occurring and most experts believe this is unlikely to occur due to the nature of the virus.
Some countries have announced travel bans to and from the UK as scientists work to better understand the new variant.