Scientists behind the discovery of a new coronavirus variant in the UK would not be drawn on whether they knew Matt Hancock was going to announce its detection.
On Monday, the Health Secretary unexpectedly told the House of Commons a new strain of the virus had been discovered.
He said the numbers of the new variant of coronavirus “are increasing rapidly”, adding that initial analysis suggested it was growing faster than the existing variants.
However, researchers working on detecting changes to the virus did not confirm whether they knew the announcement was coming.
What is the new #SARSCoV2 variant associated with a lineage spreading rapidly in the South East of England? Read our latest post to learn more and stay tuned as we provide updates as investigations proceed📝 https://t.co/7kRhK6Hok7pic.twitter.com/9ASjzvTCGU
— COVID-19 Genomics (COG-UK) Consortium (@CovidGenomicsUK) December 14, 2020
The Covid-19 Genomics UK (Cog-UK) Consortium tracks new genetic variants as they spread and investigates if these changes lead to detectable changes in the behaviour of the virus or the severity of Covid-19 infections.
Together with Public Health England (PHE), Cog-UK identified the strain named VUI – 202012/01, which was first detected in late September.
Sharon Peacock, director of Cog-UK, and professor of public health and microbiology at the University of Cambridge, was asked whether she was aware the announcement was coming.
Speaking at a Science Media Centre press briefing, Prof Peacock said: “What I would say is that everybody on this call is working in science at the moment.
“We are not working in the halls of government.
“But what I do know is that the Public Health England colleagues were in close contact with Matt Hancock and have been from the start of concern about this and so he’s been informed by colleagues there.”
Pressed on whether this meant “no”, she added: “I didn’t say yes or no.”
Prof Peacock continued, saying Mr Hancock had been advised by the best advisers in PHE.
The Cog-UK scientists reiterated the message from Mr Hancock and England’s chief medical officer Professor Chris Whitty that the new strain did not appear to be more serious.
Judith Breuer, professor of virology and co-director of the division of infection and immunity at University College London, said: “We have data to suggest that this new variant has increased in numbers.
“And we think that’s due to the changes in transmission, but we don’t know, and changes in transmission can be due to anything.
“It can be due to more mixing, it could be due to the virus – we don’t know.
“We have absolutely no data to show anything related to disease severity. And indeed we have no data to suggest that any of the variants that have occurred over the last year have affected disease severity.
“And we also have no data to suggest that this variant is evading immunity in the population or is behaving any differently to the other variants, so at the moment it’s a work in progress.”
The scientists said there was evidence the new variant – which has 17 mutations – had spread throughout the UK, with cases being detected in Wales and Scotland.
Professor Nick Loman, from the Institute of Microbiology and Infection at the University of Birmingham, said: “There is actually 17 changes that would affect the protein structure in some way that distinguish this variant from its kind of common ancestor of other variants that are circulating, which is a lot.”
He added: “It’s striking. There’s a really long branch going back to the common ancestor, and it’s a matter of great interest as to why that is the case.”
In October, a study suggested that a coronavirus variant that originated in Spanish farm workers spread rapidly throughout Europe and accounted for most UK cases.
Prof Loman explained this had become the most dominant variant in the UK, and still remains so.
Referring to the novel variant, he added: “But I think the initial modelling has shown this is growing faster than that one.
“And we don’t have that same epidemiological link with a large number of importations. We’ve not seen that, it’s not the same, quite the same idea, which does make you wonder exactly what’s going on.”
Commenting on the suggestions the new variant was spreading faster than others, Prof Loman said it is “quite strongly frequency associated with the areas of the country where we’re seeing a growth in the numbers of coronavirus”.
He added: “This (is) a correlation, and by no means can we ascertain causation simply from the genomic data.
“However, it is quite a striking growth in that variance, much more than we would see typically, in our surveillance so far.
“The second line of evidence that makes this concerning are simply the sheer number of mutations that make up this variant – quite a significantly larger number than we would normally expect to see, for reasons unknown, and the characteristic of some of those mutations.”
He added: “However, I think there is a sufficient amount of circumstantial evidence, and that correlation with the increased frequency, to really think that this is something that urgently needs following up with lab work.”