Cases of UK variant of coronavirus increase 50% faster than others: Gutiérrez

The researcher shares his insights on what these numbers mean


The UK variant of the novel Coronavirus is considered to be 50 to 75 per cent more transmissible than the original strain. In a webinar held on Tuesday, Bernardo Gutiérrez, researcher at the Department of Zoology, University of Oxford shared his insights on what these numbers mean and how transmissible the UK variant is. 

“There have been different reports written using various analytical approaches and from there we have got numbers that range from a conservative 50 per cent more transmissible to 70 per cent more transmissible. But there is uncertainty to these numbers, so overall, it seems to be somewhere around 50 per cent. Now, what does that mean? Based on the kind of analysis that has been done so far, this means that if you compare this particular lineage in the UK against every other lineage currently circulating in the UK, you tend to see that number of new cases increases roughly about 50 per cent faster than others,'' said Gutiérrez.

That doesn’t mean that if you go out on the streets, you are 50 per cent more likely to be infected. “It’s something that doesn’t necessarily translate directly. So there are numerous factors that we are definitely working on to understand,’’ he said. 

The UK variant has been discovered in at least 45 countries by now. It could be present in more countries. Answering a query on why the new strain may not even have been discovered in these countries, he said it may be attributed to poor surveillance systems. 

“Some of the public health agencies looking for cases didn’t have either the capacity or the technology or the resources to identify cases. This is more of a situation in which to identify new variants you need to do genome sequencing. There are countries that are doing a very good job and they are bringing a lot of resources and time and expertise to it. Then there are countries who are still building up their genome surveillance, so that is going to be a factor that partially determines whether any country will detect the variants early or whether it is going to take a bit longer for it.’’

The UK has long been advanced in genome sequencing whereas countries like the United States lag behind on that front. “Having a single strategy for surveillance can be more challenging in some countries than others. As far as the experience of the UK, it was definitely an initiative from big funded agencies like the Welcome Trust, and it has the support of the government agencies for surveillance. For example, Public Health England and Public Health Scotland were involved in the early stages in this process. Also the academia and medical institutions have considerable expertise- they have a lot of technical knowledge. The number of sequencing that we’re seeing in the UK is a product of lots of small agencies, small universities, small testing centres doing their sequencing in a very decentralized way, and then they were able to share the data.’’

“The virus that is just circulating within the local population is going to start to accumulate mutations,’’ said  Gutiérrez. The South African variant, which is a different variant entirely from the UK one, seems to be highly transmissible.