Healt Matters - By Matt Ashton

BLOG: All we know about the new strain of COVID-19

Last week, it was announced that a new variant, or strain, of Covid-19 has been identified. Director of Public Health Matt Ashton writes for Liverpool Express about what we know so far…

Why do we have a new strain?

All viruses vary and mutate in response to the way our body responds to them, or because of the environment. Some variants become “fitter” or better able to infect and reproduce, while others fail. This is part of the virus’ response mechanism to help it survive.

How did we find out about it?

During lockdown 2 in late November, an unusual pattern of transmission in Kent was identified by Public Health England, with infections rising very rapidly whilst the rest of the country slowed down. This spread geographically. This led to a close look at the genetic types of cluster samples and identified the new strain. Further sampling across the South East, London and part of Essex indicated an increasing spread.

Do we know if it is circulating locally?

The new strain is found everywhere in the country but at variable proportions at the moment. It is estimated that it is becoming the predominant type spreading in many of the areas of London, the South East and East of England and is responsible for close to 60% of new cases. We believe that it will only be a matter of time before it becomes the predominant spread everywhere in England, particularly as people travel around the country for Christmas – which is why we are asking people who have come from Tier 4 areas and Wales for the festive season to take extra precautions, including getting tested.

What do we know about this variant?

The virus is thought to be more easily spread from person to person. This is down to two factors:

1: It produces more virus in people who are infectious (a higher viral load) which means more virus can be breathed out in droplets or aerosol. So there is more of it breathed out to get into someone else’s body through their nose, mouth and eyes.

2: It has multiple mutations on its spike proteins (surface spikes) which means when it does get into your body it is better adapted to getting inside your cells and replicating.

It is estimated that it is about 50%-75% more transmissible than the dominant strain that has been circulating for months. It does not mean prevention measures such as face coverings, social distancing and hand washing are ineffective – they are, but it is more important than ever that they are performed rigorously.

Does it make people more ill?

There is no clinical evidence yet as to whether the impact on people infected is neutral, better or worse. Urgent studies are ongoing to establish if this new variant will follow the usual pattern, which is that as it becomes more transmissible it reduces in virulence, or severity. Multiple lab studies are underway exploring the properties of this strain.

Our real concern is due to the fact that it is much easier to transmit, which means it has the ability to infect more people, and put additional pressure on health services. This is the pattern we have seen in Tier 4 areas.

Do the Covid-19 tests still work?

Yes – both the PCR (lab) and Lateral Flow Test (quick turnaround used in our rapid/SMART testing centres) are understood to work for this strain. Again, rapid work is underway to confirm this.

Does the vaccine still work?

All the evidence is that it will not have any impact on the effectiveness of the vaccine. So it is vital that people attend to have the jab when they are contacted by their GP or medical practitioner.

What should I do to protect myself, and others?

It really is a matter of following all the guidance. This means:

  • Wash your hands regularly and keep two metres away from people who are not from your household
  • Wear a face covering when visiting the shops, moving around a hospitality venue or in a confined space
  • Get tested at one of our rapid testing centres before you go Christmas shopping, to the football match or visit the cinema, theatre or beauty salon
  • Think carefully about who you visit or have around to your house on Christmas Day and get tested beforehand
  • If you get symptoms (continuous cough/fever/loss of taste or smell) self-isolate and book a test here, or by calling 119.

If you have arrived in Liverpool from a Tier 4 area or Wales we are asking you to assume you may have the virus and take extra precautions, including getting tested as soon as possible.

The science on this will continue to develop rapidly, and I will keep you updated.

Liverpool Waterfront