A highly infectious strain of coronavirus first detected in southeast England last September has now spread to more than 80 countries, and there are warnings it will “sweep the world”.
Experts believe the B.1.1.7 variant could be between 30 and 70 percent more infectious, and about 30 percent more lethal, than other versions of the novel coronavirus in circulation.
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B.1.1.7 is defined by 23 mutations from the original strain of SARS-CoV2, the virus that causes COVID-19, which was first detected in the Chinese city of Wuhan in December 2019.
After being recorded in Kent, the variant quickly became the dominant strain of all infections in the United Kingdom.
It is not yet known whether the variant actually emerged in Kent, a county near London described as the “garden of England”, because of its fruit-filled orchards and rolling countryside, or was simply first detected there.
Scientists have said the strain may have evolved within just one person who was infected with the novel coronavirus for a sufficient period of time to allow it to transform.
Now, B.1.1.7 accounts for about 90 percent of all new COVID-19 infections being recorded in the country.
Its rapid spread in the UK has fuelled a surge in cases and deaths, and on January 4, forced a new national lockdown.
The variant also spread outwards, and quickly.
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), 83 countries have reported cases of the strain.
It has been detected on every continent on Earth except for Antarctica.
The spread of B.1.1.7 adds to fears over two other highly infectious strains in circulation – the so-called Brazilian and South African variants, known by scientists as 20I/501Y.V2 or B.1.351 and P.1 respectively.
At the heart of concerns is whether the vaccines currently in use will work against the mutations.
The Brazilian and South African variants possess the E484K mutation, which occurs on the spike protein of the virus.
The mutation is believed to help the virus evade antibodies and slip past the body’s immune defences. Scientists have warned it could weaken the effectiveness of vaccines.
For its part, the UK is confident the vaccines in use in the country – by Oxford-AstraZeneca and another by Pfizer-BioNtech – are effective against B.1.1.7 and other variants.
But a further mutation in the B.1.1.7 strain detected recently in the town of Bristol, in southwest England, could potentially undermine the shots, Sharon Peacock, director of the COVID-19 Genomics UK Consortium, told the BBC.
To date, 21 cases of the Bristol variant, which has the E484K mutation, have been recorded.
The new mutation has been designated a “variant of concern” by the UK’s New and Emerging Respiratory Virus Threats Advisory Group.
“It’s concerning that the 1.1.7, which is more transmissible, which has swept the country, is now mutating to have this new mutation that could threaten vaccination,” Peacock said.