WHO warns about reinfection from new COVID variants

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The Covid virus has inevitably mutated. But while this may sound frightening, all viruses naturally mutate as they spread through a population, so coronavirus is just following in its genetic trajectory. The COVID-19 virus has, in fact, changed at a slower pace compared to other viruses like seasonal flu, which mutates so quickly that a new vaccine has to be introduced every year. Covid is an RNA virus, like the flu and measles, a type which is more prone to mutations that DNA viruses like herpes and smallpox.

Virus mutations happen when the virus makes contact with a host and starts to replicate its code.

The set of instructions is then copied, but mistakes can often take place during the process.

Where the errors occur within the genome will determine whether they have a positive or negative effect on the virus’s ability to survive or replicate.

Mutations usually happen by chance and don’t have much impact on the actual properties of a virus.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) said these changes are “natural and expected”.

Often, they can lead to a weaker version of the virus, or the changes could be found to be so small it doesn’t impact the virus’s behaviour.

However, sometimes viruses can mutate in a way that helps to spread the infection, which can be concerning.

More worrying mutations occur when the proteins on the surface of the virus are physically changed.

How many Covid variants are there?

PHE have this week identified a new strain of coronavirus known as VUI-202102/04.

The variant has been designated as a Variant Under Investigation (VUI) and contains the E484K mutation, which scientists have previously warned could be more resistant to the developed Covid vaccines.

But the new strain doesn’t have the N501Y mutation, which has been found in all variants of concern so far.

Cases of the new variant were first identified on February 15 through a method of genomic horizon scanning, according to PHE.

PHE said the cases were geographically spread around the UK and confirmed that surge testing won’t be necessary to tackle it as this method is only rolled out for variants of high concern.

Everyone who has tested positive for the mutation has been told to isolate, alongside all people they have been in contact with recently.

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At this point in time, there are believed to be about 4,000 variants of COVID-19 circulating around the world.

Vaccines Ministers Nadhim Zahawi recently revealed the figure on TV, adding that vaccine manufacturers are aware of the situation.

Mr Zahawi said: “All manufacturers are looking at how they can improve their vaccine to make sure we are ready for any variant.

“There are about 4,000 variants around the world of Covid-19 right now.”

Although there are believed to be thousands of variants, they haven’t all been identified aside from a handful.

The main variants are:

  • Brazil
  • South Africa
  • UK
  • Finland
  • Denmark
  • California, USA

Currently, there are seven areas undergoing surge testing to monitor the spread of the new variants.

The following local authority areas are affected:

  • London Borough of Barnet (specific areas within N2 and NW4)
  • London Borough of Croydon (specific areas in the CR0 postcode)
  • London Borough of Lambeth (specific areas in the SW8 and SW9 postcodes)
  • London Borough of Merton (parts of the Wimbledon Park area)
  • London Borough of Redbridge (Loxford and Clementswood wards)
  • South Gloucestershire Council (within the following postcodes: BS32 0, BS32 8, BS32 9, BS34 5 and BS34 6)
  • Staffordshire County Council (Stafford District)

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