A mutated virus sounds instinctively scary, but to mutate and change is what viruses do.
Most of the time it is either a meaningless tweak or the virus alters itself in such a way that it gets worse at infecting us and the new variant just dies out.
Occasionally it hits on a new winning formula.
There is no clear-cut evidence the new variant of coronavirus – which has been detected in south-east England – is able to transmit more easily, cause more serious symptoms or render the vaccine useless.
However, there are two reasons scientists are keeping a close eye on it.
- ‘New variant’ of coronavirus identified in England
- Mutated coronavirus may ‘jump back and forth’
- Bogus reports, accidental finds – the Oxford vaccine story
The first is that levels of the variant are higher in places where cases are higher.
It is a warning sign, although it can be interpreted in two ways.
The virus could have mutated to spread more easily and is causing more infections.
But variants can also get a lucky break by infecting the right people at the right time. One explanation for the spread of the “Spanish strain” over the summer was simply people catching it on holiday and then bringing it home.
It will take experiments in the laboratory to figure out if this variant really is a better spreader than all the others.
The other issue that is raising scientific eyebrows is how the virus has mutated.
“It has a surprisingly large number of mutations, more than we would expect, and a few look interesting,” Prof Nick Loman from the COVID-19 Genomics UK (COG-UK) Consortium told me.
There are two notable sets of mutation – and I apologise for their hideous names.
Both are found in the crucial spike protein, which is the key the virus uses to unlock the doorway into our body’s cells in order to hijack them.
The mutation N501 (I did warn you) alters the most important part of the spike, known as the “receptor-binding domain”.
This is where the spike makes first contact with the surface of our body’s cells. Any changes that make it easier for the virus to get inside are likely to give it an edge.
“It looks and smells like an important adaptation,” said Prof Loman.