The new and more infectious variant of Covid-19 first found in Kent is likely to become the world’s dominant strain, the director of the UK’s genetic surveillance programme said.
The variant has been detected across Britain, in more than 50 countries and “it’s going to sweep the world, in all probability”, Professor Sharon Peacock from the Covid-19 Genomics UK (Cog-UK) Consortium told the BBC’s Newscast podcast.
The new variant initially led to London and parts of southern and eastern England being rushed into Tier 4 restrictions prior to Christmas, before stricter measures were introduced throughout the UK.
Analysis of the variant, known as B117, suggests it is up to 70% more transmissible than the previous strain that was dominant in the UK.
Scientists have repeatedly warned that existing Covid-19 vaccines could be less effective with some new mutations of the virus, but developers behind the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine say their jab still gives good protection against the Kent variant.
It is unclear how it will react with different mutations, but scientists have said the vaccine can be updated and a tweaked version, designed to combat variants, could be deployed as early as autumn.
Peacock, professor of public health and microbiology at the University of Cambridge, said transmissibility was likely to cause scientists difficulties for years to come.
“Once we get on top of it [Covid-19] or it mutates itself out of being virulent – causing disease – then we can stop worrying about it,” she said.
“But I think, looking in the future, we’re going to be doing this for years. We’re still going to be doing this 10 years down the line, in my view.”
Despite data suggesting the mutant variant may be more deadly, there is no evidence to indicate existing treatments, such as dexamethasone, will not be effective against it.
A study has suggested that people infected with the UK variant are less likely to report a loss of taste and smell.
There are now four “variants of concern” of the virus that causes Covid-19 identified by government advisers, three of these have been found in the UK, and the fourth is the Brazil variant identified in people who had travelled to Japan.
Analysis is ongoing to establish the impact of these mutations on the virus.