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Matt Hancock blames new strain of coronavirus for surging cases in London and the South East

A mutated strain of coronavirus may be the culprit behind a rapid surge in infections in London and the South East of England, Matt Hancock suggested today.

UK experts have so far identified more than 1,000 confirmed cases of the variant, called VUI – 202012/01, the Health Secretary told the House of Commons today.

There have been reports of the strain in at least 60 local authority areas and it is believed to be similar to ultra-infectious variants racing through Europe, he claimed. 

VUI – 202012/01 was picked up in Kent last week during routine testing by Public Health England (PHE) and ministers were alerted to its existence on Friday.

PHE scientists are studying the mutant strain at a Government laboratory in Porton Down to see if it behaves differently to the normal, predominant version of the virus.

Experts will seek to find out if the variant is more infectious or deadly or if it will have any impact on Pfizer’s vaccine. It normally takes about two weeks to get the results. 

But Mr Hancock said there was ‘ currently nothing to suggest’ the strain is more deadly or likely to cause serious symptoms than other versions of the disease, adding that it is also ‘highly unlikely’ to be resistant to vaccines. 

So far little is known about VUI 202012/01 – which stands for Variant Under Investigation in December 2020 – or where it originated.  

All viruses, including the one that causes Covid-19, naturally mutate as they spread through populations and the modifications normally make minimal difference to the way they behave in humans.

Independent scientists said it would be ‘premature to make claims about the potential impacts of virus mutation’ before it has been rigorously studied.

A mutated strain of coronavirus may be the culprit behind a rapid surge in infections in London and the South East of England, Matt Hancock suggested today (file) 

Mr Hancock told MPs today: ‘Over the last few days, thanks to our world class genomic capability in the UK, we have identified a new variant of coronavirus which may be associated with the faster spread in the South East of England.

‘Initial analysis suggests this variant is growing faster than the existing variants. We have currently identified over 1,000 cases of this variant, predominantly in the South of England.

‘Although cases have been identified in nearly 60 different local authority areas and numbers are increasing rapidly. Similar variants have been identified in other countries over the last few months.

‘We’ve notified the World Health Organisation about this new variant and Public Health England is working hard to continue its expert analysis at Porton Down.

‘I must stress at this point there is currently nothing to suggest that this variant more likely to cause serious disease.

‘And the latest clinical advice is that it’s highly unlikely this mutation would fail to respond to a vaccine. But it shows we’ve got to be vigilant and follow the rules.

‘And everyone needs to take personal responsibility not to spread this virus.’

The sole purpose of the virus is to replicate as many times as possible, and many pathogens evolve over time in order to become more infectious — which often makes them less deadly so they can survive for longer and be spread to more people.

Tiny changes in its DNA occur every time it spreads between people as it tries to enable greater growth, transmissibility or escape from the immune system.

But most of the changes have little to no effect and only rarely does a mutation occur that actually accomplishes one of these goals. This is a process than can take years, if not decades, with most viruses.

But some, such as the flu, mutate much quicker, which is why a different flu jab is created every year to protect millions of people against different strains. 

Experts are still uncertain how quickly SARS-CoV-2 mutates, but the consensus has been that this process is slower than flu, as is the case with other seasonal coronaviruses.

Another mutation in Sars-Cov-2, called D614G, was identified over summer and is still thriving in Europe, the US and parts of Asia. 

It is believed to make the virus more infectious but less deadly, which researchers believed was behind low hospital and death rates during the warmer months.

A different strain — called Cluster 5 — that emerged in mink over autumn was feared to make vaccines less potent after it was found to be resistant to antibodies, 

It was feared Cluster 5 would be able to slip past promising new Covid-19 vaccines, which work by stimulating an antibody response. 

Officials locked down swathes of northern Denmark where the strain originated and ordered the culling of 17million mink to stomp out the variant before it became widespread.