People should not lose sleep over new coronavirus variant – Government adviser

People should not lose sleep over the new coronavirus variant, and the discovery of the new strain is not a disaster, a scientist advising the Government has said.

Calum Semple, professor of outbreak medicine at the University of Liverpool and a member of the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage), said it is normal for viruses to mutate.

He added that it was “the million-dollar question” whether vaccines will be effective against the new variant of coronavirus but he thinks they will.

Prof Semple told BBC Breakfast: “People should not be losing sleep about this, they really need to leave the virology to the scientists because we’re at the very early stages of understanding what’s going on here.

“What I can say is that coronavirus, like many other viruses, mutate all the time.

“And without the presence of community immunity – that’s because we don’t have herd immunity and won’t have for many, many months – the virus essentially is free to change and become more comfortable with the humans with which it is living.

“That’s what the virus is doing – it is learning how to become slightly better at living with us and becoming slightly more infectious. But that does not mean it’s harming us more or causing more severe illness in people.”

Prof Semple explained that some of the mutations are occurring in what he described as the key that the virus uses to unlock the cells – something which is seen with flu each year, which is why the flu vaccine has to change year on year.

He added: “I would expect the (Covid-19) vaccine still to be reasonably effective because it’s currently 95% effective.

“Even if we dropped a few percentage points, it’s still going to be good enough, and much better than many other vaccines on the market.

“And the next bit of good news is that the new vaccines are essentially like emails that we send to the immune system, and they’re very easy to tweak.

“So if we know that the lock has changed very slightly, we just have to edit that email, change a word or two and then the vaccine that will be ready in six to eight weeks’ time after that, will be competent and better targeted to the new strain.

“So this is not a disaster. This isn’t a breakdown in all our plans. This is just what we expect with a new virus, and it’s what the scientists and the doctors have come to understand, and we will adapt.”

On Monday, Health Secretary Matt Hancock said higher infections in the South East may be in part due to a newly detected variant of coronavirus which is growing faster than the existing one.

Public Health England (PHE) said that as of December 13, 1,108 cases with this new variant had been identified, predominantly in the south and east of England.

It has been named VUI – 202012/01 – the first variant under investigation in December.