New COVID-19 variants: What we know so far, in 500 words

At least three new coronavirus strains have been detected in recent weeks, in the UK, South Africa and Nigeria.

A driver wearing a face mask walks past trucks at Ashford International Truck Stop, as EU countries impose a travel ban from the UK following the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak, in Ashford, Britain [Simon Dawson/Reuters]

Three new variants of COVID-19 have been detected in recent weeks, discoveries which have led to fresh fears across the world because some make the virus up to 70 percent more transmissible.

Viruses are known to change and mutate constantly. It is a process which happens as they are passed from person to person over a period of months.

So to scientists, it came as no surprise to witness new variants of the disease.

While it is difficult to predict where new mutations of the disease will occur, none so far have been found to contain mutations that make the virus deadlier, or more likely to be able to evade vaccines or treatments.

One of the first strains reported is known as the UK variant, which has been named VUI-202012/01 (the first Variant Under Investigation in December 2020). This mutation is thought to have first occurred in mid-September in the United Kingdom’s southeast, in the capital London or the county of Kent.

Referred to by some experts as the B.1.1.7 lineage, this has rapidly become the dominant strain in cases of COVID-19 in many parts of the UK.

It appears to be no more fatal, but is more contagious than the original strain, which has led to the swift return of international travel restrictions and other measures amid the holiday season.

It can lead to the same broad symptoms as the original strain, including high temperature, persistent dry cough and a loss or change in taste and smell.

The UK variant has spread rapidly across Europe, with Italy, Denmark, and the Netherlands reporting new infections. Australia and Singapore have also detected cases of the fast-spreading UK variant. Countries including the United States have already requested negative COVID-19 tests from UK travellers.

Meanwhile, South Africa has also reported a new COVID-19 strain which appears to have mutated further than the UK variant. It has made its way to several countries including the UK.

Known as 501.V2, this variant is dominant among new confirmed infections in South Africa, and appears to be more infectious than the original virus, according to health officials and scientists leading the country’s virus strategy.

Though it is too early to confirm, this new strain could be responsible for driving the country’s current resurgence of the disease. Authorities in South Africa have introduced tougher restrictions as the number of total confirmed cases approaches one million.

While the variant transmits quickly and viral loads are higher, it is not yet clear whether it leads to more severe disease.

Lastly, the latest discovery is a new variant that emerged in Nigeria. It is of a separate lineage from the other mutations.

This P681H variant does not seem to be spreading as fast as the other two new variants. Scientists say there is not yet enough evidence to prove that an uptick in cases relates to an increased transmission of this new strain.

New mutations could affect testing to some extent, making it harder to detect the virus.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies