A mutant strain of Covid-19 ravaging the United Kingdom has already been detected in a case in Australia, according to international health officials.
The variant, which UK authorities say is 70 per cent more transmissible than the dominant strain, led several European nations to close off direct flights from the UK.
A European Centre for Disease Control briefing released on Sunday said the variant, SARS-CoV-2 VUI 202012/01, was detected in an Australian sample last month.
Nurses in full protective equipment on Sydney’s northern beaches, amid a massive outbreak in the past week. That outbreak is linked to a US strain, rather than the UK variant
‘Three sequences from Denmark and one from Australia, from samples collected in November 2020, cluster with the UK variant,’ the document said.
‘(That is) most likely indicating that international spread has occurred, although the extent remains unknown.’
UK Health Secretary Matt Hancock told Sky News the virus had only been detected in a ‘couple of other places… There’s been a case in Australia and some parts of continental Europe.’
However, the Australian case was contained, World Health Organisation technical lead on Covid-19 Maria Van Kerkhove told the BBC. ‘There was one case in Australia and it didn’t spread further there,’ the official said.
Daily Mail Australia has asked the Federal Department of Health if the case was detected in hotel quarantine, as seems likely.
Australian health officials have revealed the recent outbreak on Sydney’s northern beaches was a US strain of the virus, according to genomic testing.
The new virus strain ravaging the United Kingdom has 17 mutations. British authorities believe the strain can be transmitted from person-to-person more easily than the typical strains
Worried Sydneysiders line up to get tested this week amid a fresh Australian outbreak
Some 83 cases have been reported in the biggest cluster to be reported Down Under in months with the major Sydney peninsula forced into lockdown.
On Monday morning, Federal Health Minister Greg Hunt said Australia wasn’t considering closing off flights from the United Kingdom due to the variant.
‘We already have in place a quarantine system,’ he said. ‘One of the things in Europe is that they have not adopted a similar system.’
World Health Organisation officials have said there is no evidence the variant is more deadly than other dominant strains around the world.
Q&A: Does the UK’s mutant strain of coronavirus make you more ill – and will the vaccine still work?
By Stephen Adams and Max Aitchison for the Mail On Sunday
WHAT IS THE NEW STRAIN – AND WHAT IS IT CALLED?
A strain is a version of a virus that carries particular genetic mutations.
This new strain is a version of Sars-Cov-2, the coronavirus which causes the disease Covid-19, which makes it more contagious than others in circulation.
It’s been named VUI-202012/01 which is code for the first ‘variant under investigation’ of December 2020.
Its technical name is N501Y + 69/70del, which refers to specific genetic mutations.
HOW MUCH MORE EASILY DOES IT SPREAD?
Based on preliminary evidence, British Government scientists think it spreads up to 70 per cent more easily than other strains.
This means it will drive up the ‘R’ or reproduction rate, which is the average number of people that an infected person passes it on to.
WHAT DO THESE NEW MUTATIONS DO?
Many occur in what’s called the ‘receptor binding domain’ of the spike protein which help the virus latch on to human cells and gain entry.
The mutations make it easier for the virus to bind to human cells’ ACE2 receptors.
The changes might also help the virus avoid human antibodies which would otherwise help protect us from infection.
WHAT CAUSED THESE GENETIC CHANGES TO ARISE?
Every time the virus replicates there’s a chance that parts of it will mutate due to what is known as genetic ‘copying error’.
All individual mutations are random and most make no practical difference.
Certain conditions can put evolutionary pressure on the virus to change.
One group of geneticists have speculated that growing natural immunity in the UK population, which makes it harder for the virus to spread, might have forced it to adapt.
Another theory is that the mutation arose in a patient who was fighting the virus for a long time which was then passed on to another individual.
WILL THE VACCINE STILL WORK ON THE NEW MUTATIONS?
UK Government scientists are still working on the assumption that ‘the vaccine response should be adequate’ for this variant, but a top doctor admitted last night: ‘We need to keep vigilant about this.’
Scientists say the vaccine produces antibodies against many regions in the spike protein, so it is highly unlikely that a single change to the spike – or even a couple – would render a vaccine useless.