South Africa claims new COVID-19 strain, as UK grapples with 'faster spreading' mutation

The fresh mutation is "moving fast". Modi govt will hold a meet today to discuss it

virus-cells-coronavirus-copy-space-virus-Covid-19-shut Representational image

On Sunday, South Africa announced a brand new strain of the novel coronavirus, which the country says has been spreading faster than the previous ones. The announcement comes immediately on the back of United Kingdom closing down after discovering a fresh mutation of COVID-19. Ultimately, nothing solid is known yet on whether the new virus strains cause a higher rate of mortality. However, South Africa stated that there was a concern that the novel coronavirus was affecting many young people and those with no comorbidities, who were among those least at risk in the early days of the pandemic. The South African health minister said people should be concerned about this new variant of the virus, but there was no reason to panic. "We have convened this public briefing today to announce that a variant of the SARS-COV-2 virus—currently termed 501.V2 Variant—has been identified by our genomics scientists here in South Africa," the minister told reporters.

 Mutations are essentially small genetic changes, not evenly distributed across the virus genome—by all indications, the new strains of the virus seem to have registered changes in its signature spike protein. Mutations are not essentially bad in itself. Viruses mutate naturally, and mutations do not translate into a more dangerous or virulent form of the existing virus. However, if the latter happens, it is a cause of real concern. The one in the UK has eight changes in the spike protein, according to multiple reports. 

The new UK strain of COVID-19, according to the British government’s chief scientific adviser Patrick Vallance, “moves fast and is becoming the dominant variant”, causing over 60 per cent of infections in London by December. This resulted in the country announcing stringent new stay-at-home lockdowns in the UK from Sunday, with non-essential shops and businesses now closed. UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced the new rules at a briefing from 10 Downing Street on Saturday evening, which means a planned five-day “Christmas bubble” of relaxed rules has been cancelled in favour of a new tier 4 level to the current three-tier lockdown system to try and control the surge in infections being caused by the new mutation of the deadly virus. "It seems that the spread is now being driven by the new variant of the virus,” Johnson said.

“We have alerted the World Health Organisation and are continuing to analyse the available data to improve our understanding,” said Professor Chris Whitty, the Chief Medical Officer for England.

In May, one particular strain worldwide was announced a cause of major concern. Research from Los Alamos National Laboratory in US's New Mexico, focusing on genetic changes or mutations in the spike protein that gives the virus its distinctive "crown-like" shape, identified 14 mutations in the spike. According to the researchers, one particular mutation—identified as D614G—is of "urgent concern". "It began spreading in Europe in early February, and when introduced to new regions it rapidly becomes the dominant form," according to the study, which has not yet been peer-reviewed.

India holds meeting to discuss the new strain

According to a report by news agency PTI,  the Union health ministry has called an urgent meeting of its Joint Monitoring Group on Monday to discuss the emergence of a mutated variant of the coronavirus in the UK, which has led to a surge in the infection rate there.

A number of European countries have banned flights from the UK as the British government warned that the potent new strain of the virus was "out of control" and imposed a stringent new stay-at-home lockdown from Sunday.

"The Joint Monitoring Group (JMG) chaired by the Director General of Health Services (DGHS) will hold a meeting on Monday morning to discuss the issue of the mutated variant of the coronavirus reported from the UK. WHO's India representative Dr Roderico H Ofrin, who is also a member of the JMG, is likely to participate in the meeting," a source told PTI.

-Inputs from agencies