New COVID-19 variant growing rapidly in UK, study shows

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In a new study, researchers found in the UK, the new SARS-CoV-2 variant is growing rapidly, is more transmissible than other variants, and affecting a greater proportion of under the 20s.

The research was conducted by a team from Imperial College London and elsewhere.

All viruses undergo genetic changes which are called mutations, and through selection, pressure can result in different variants.

The variant of SARS-CoV-2 (the virus causing COVID-19) originally termed lineage B.1.1.7, was detected in November 2020 and is rapidly spreading across England.

Several genetic changes (substitutions and deletions) have immunological significance and are linked to diagnostic test failures.

The absence of S gene target in an otherwise positive PCR test appears to be a highly specific marker for the B.1.1.7 lineage, which has now been designated a Variant of Concern (VOC) 202012/01 by Public Health England.

In the study, the team evaluated the link between transmission and the frequency of the new variant across regions in the UK over time.

They showed that this variant is growing rapidly. Higher infection levels took place despite the high levels of social distancing in England. Extrapolation to other transmission contexts requires caution.

The team also found that people under 20 years old make up a higher proportion of VOC cases than non-VOC cases.

However, it is too early to determine the mechanism behind this change according to the researchers.

They explain that it may partly have been influenced by the variants spread coinciding with a period where lockdown was in force but schools were open.

Further research is ongoing on the specific nature of any changes in how the virus affects this age group.

The team says people have two licensed vaccines, but this research underlines the importance of doing everything we can to reduce the spread of the virus while the vaccines are being rolled out.

The basics remain very important: Comply with social distancing and abide by the restrictions in place.

One researcher of the study is Dr. Erik Volz of Imperial College London.

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