This article has been medically approved by Superintendent Pharmacist Phil Day, MRPharmS (IPresc) - GPhC Reg No: 2043558
A new variant of coronavirus was detected in the UK in December, which appears to be much more easily transmissible and therefore has been associated with the sharp rise in coronavirus cases that we’ve seen in recent weeks throughout the country. Around 1 in 3 people who have coronavirus show no symptoms and could be spreading it without realising. The NHS are therefore encouraging everyone to act as if they have the virus, even if they have no symptoms.
What is the new variant?
This UK variant is called SARS-CoV-2 VOC 202012/01 (the first variant of concern from 2020, December). It is important to note that variants or ‘mutations’ arise naturally as a virus replicates and is a natural part of a virus’ life cycle. SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, is consistently assessed for new variants and checked to see if these variants make any changes to the transmissibility, symptoms, and severity of the virus. There have already been thousands of mutations to SARS-CoV-2, but these are mostly insignificant. Only a small minority of mutations are significant enough to change the virus enough to impact us.
Here we explain more about the UK variant VOC 202012/01 along with the recent discovery of a South African variant (501Y.V2) and a Brazilian variant (VUI) 202101/01, which have also recently been detected across the world.
Is the new UK variant more deadly?
There is currently no evidence to suggest that the new variant is more likely to lead to a serious illness or an increased risk of death compared to the original variant that started the pandemic. Studies are continuing to investigate this.
What are the symptoms of the new variant?
The symptoms of the new variant are the same as the initial variant of coronavirus that was first identified in China. The symptoms of coronavirus are described here.
Why is this variant more transmissible?
The new variant carries a mutation to the gene which gives rise to the surface spike proteins. Mutations in the spike protein – the part of the virus that makes it infectious – can change how the virus interacts with human cells. However, the reason why this variant is more transmissible is still being investigated.
What action should I take?
Because 1 in 3 people who have coronavirus show no symptoms and so could be spreading it without realising, it is more important than ever to take positive action to prevent its spread. We should act as if we have the virus even if we do not show any symptoms. Everyone should also follow the government guidelines to stay at home, social distance, wear a face mask in enclosed spaces, and frequently wash our hands for at least 20 seconds.
What does this mean for COVID-19 vaccinations?
It is thought that the coronavirus vaccinations will still provide a very good level of protection against the new variant but further studies are ongoing to check the protection provided.
Can tests detect the new variant?
Yes, polymerase chain reaction (PCR) tests are able to detect this new variant.
What is the latest information about the South African and Brazilian variants of coronavirus?
Two more variants have now also been detected in the UK; one that is thought to have originated from South Africa (501Y.V2) and one variant that was originally discovered in Brazil (VUI) 202101/01. Similarly to the UK variant, the mutation in both of these variants is believed to have come from changes to the spike protein, making them more likely to infect cells and spread. These spike protein changes may have been more significant than those of the UK variant and are still being investigated.
There is no current evidence to suggest that the South African or Brazilian variants are more transmissible than the UK variant but they are still thought to be more transmissible than the initial variant of coronavirus. Studies are still ongoing to further investigate.
Although there is no evidence that any of the three new variants give rise to more severe coronavirus symptoms, they all appear to be more easily transmissible, which means there is a greater chance of the virus spreading. This will ultimately cause more hospital admissions and deaths even if the new variants do not cause more severe symptoms for each individual.
The Government has now imposed a travel ban on direct flights from South Africa, South (and Central) America and Portugal as a result of the development to try and minimise the risk of these variants spreading further throughout the UK.
As always, please continue to stay safe and follow government guidance.