Experts have identified a new variant of coronavirus which may be linked to the faster spread of Covid-19 in the south of England.
Health Secretary Matt Hancock said there is nothing to suggest this new strain is more likely to cause serious disease.
Here the PA news agency answers some of the questions about the development:
– Is this something unusual?
There have been many mutations in the virus since it emerged in 2019.
This is to be expected – SARS-CoV-2 is an RNA virus and these viruses mutate and change.
– Is this something to be worried about?
Not enough is yet known about the new strain, but it is premature to make any claims about the potential impacts of virus mutation.
But if the virus spreads faster it will be harder to control.
However, there have already been various strains of Covid-19 with no real consequence.
It could potentially be serious, but not enough is known, and the surveillance and research will continue.
– Is it the first novel strain detected in the UK?
A number of variants have been detected using sequencing studies in the UK.
A specific variant (the D614G variant) has previously been detected in western Europe and North America which is believed to spread more easily but not cause greater illness.
But it is thought this is the first strain that will be investigated in such detail by Public Health England.
– Are new variants always a bad thing?
Not necessarily. They could even be less virulent.
However, if they spread more easily but cause the same disease severity, more people will end up becoming ill in a shorter period of time.
– Should we expect the virus to become more harmful?
Not really. Only changes that make viruses better for transmission are likely to be stable and result in new circulating strains.
The pressure on the virus to evolve is increased by the fact that so many millions of people have now been infected.
Most of the mutations will not be significant or give cause for concern, but some may give the virus an evolutionary advantage which may lead to higher transmission or mean it is more harmful.
– Will vaccines still work?
Mr Hancock said the latest clinical advice is that it is highly unlikely that this mutation would fail to respond to a vaccine.
The vaccine produces antibodies against many regions in the spike protein, and it is unlikely a single change would make the vaccine less effective.
However, this could happen over time as more mutations occur, as is the case every year with flu.
– So what are the scientists doing now?
Scientists will be growing the new strain in the lab to see how it responds.
This includes looking at whether it produces the same antibody response, how it reacts to the vaccine, and modelling the new strain.
It could take up to two weeks for this thorough process to be complete.