UK variant of virus not exactly ‘new’

A 3D-printed coronavirus model.-REUTERS/Dado Ruvic/Illustration/File Photo

PETALING JAYA: The newly detected Covid-19 variant in the United Kingdom is not any more dangerous than the variants that are already here, say experts.

Viruses are expected to undergo mutations as they react differently under different factors to survive, they also said.

Although there is no data yet showing that the UK variant is here, they warned people not to be complacent.

Epidemiologist Datuk Dr Awang Bulgiba Awang Mahmud said that particular variant is not exactly “new”.

Currently labelled as VUI-202012/01 (Virus Under Investigation in December 2020), the variant was first detected in the UK in September, he noted.

“The British researchers started to see a big proportion of the new variant in UK when they did the genome sequencing.

“The UK variant is possibly an evolutionary mechanism of the virus to infect more by causing a higher viral load, ” Dr Awang said.

(Virus genome sequencing is a vital and rapidly developing tool in the diagnosis of Covid-19 and in understanding the spread and control of the coronavirus.)

Dr Awang said the UK variant is different from the D614G currently being transmitted aggressively in Malaysia.

The D614G was first detected in the Sivagangga cluster in August and called the super spreader for its infectious rate.

“This UK variant has a set of 17 changes or mutations.

“One of the most significant in the UK variant mutation is in the spike protein that the virus uses to bind to human cells.

“It is most likely already transported here as it has been around since September but we have yet to detect this here as we do not do much genome sequencing, ” he said.

Dr Awang suggests that more genome sequencing be done on samples of large clusters to track the sequence to see whether the variant has mutated.

In recent days, UK has identified a new, potentially more contagious coronavirus variant linked to a recent surge in cases in the country.

While scientists hunt for more information about the variant, its impact is already being felt.

Multiple countries have now imposed restrictions on travellers from the UK with British government officials saying that it is getting out of control.

Dr Awang said there is not enough data yet to suggest that there are different symptoms in those who contracted Covid-19 through the N501Y variant or if it is more dangerous than the ones which are already in Malaysia.

“Treatment for now should just be the same. The only difference is that this variant is more easily transmitted, ” he said.

He said vaccines tend not to target one thing and may work on controlling mutated variants, even if it was developed using a different mutation.

Dr Benjamin George of Gleneagles Kuala Lumpur said genome sequencing is like finger-printing to find out the history and the source from where it starts and also to track the progress of the virus as it spreads.

“Viruses are expected to mutate and cold countries are ideal for spreading and developing new variants, ” he said.

He further noted that as a virus is not a living thing, it needs a host to survive and it tends to mutate to adapt to the host.

The good news, according to Dr George, is that variants of a virus tend to be less likely to be virulent, which means less morbidity and mortality.

He also said that as the currently developed Covid-19 vaccines are targeting the spike proteins, the current vaccines may still be able to contain the UK variant as its mutation is in the spike protein.

“There is not much data available yet on the Covid-19 variants, depending on research and availability for genetic sequencing, but as in flu epidemics, predicting epidemics and pandemics is a mix of studies, patterns and intelligent guessing, ” said Dr George.

The founder of Healtopedia – a company currently focused on Covid-19 screening – also suggested that for now, Malaysia has more periodic testing, especially on big clusters and mass testing for the public.

“In the future, to contain the epidemic, researchers can predict the potential variants which may begin in certain seasons in certain places and the vaccines for those variants are developed in time, ” Dr George added.

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Covid-19 , variant , United Kingdom , mutations


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