Fast-spreading UK coronavirus variant: All your questions answered


By Tia Ghose – Assistant Managing Editor 

A scary new strain of coronavirus, innocuously named B.1.1.7, has recently exploded across southeast England, prompting the government to tighten lockdowns on the region. Though we don’t know all the details, experts are increasingly confident it is more easily transmitted than other strains. Here’s everything we know so far about this novel strain.

What is it?

The B.1.1.7  strain of SARS-CoV-2 is a version of the virus with 23 mutations, eight of which are in the spike protein the virus uses to bind to and enter human cells, Science Magazine reported

It has become the most common variant in England, representing more than 50% of new cases diagnosed between October and Dec. 13 in the U.K., according to the WHO.

However, some scientists now believe that the virus may have mutated in a person who was immunocompromised, according to Science Magazine. That’s because, unlike the flu, the novel coronavirus can correct mistakes when it replicates, and so tends to have a fairly stable genome, Live Science previously reported. However, studies have shown that people who have weakened immune systems — because they are taking immunosuppressant drugs or are being treated with chemotherapy, for instance — may harbor infectious virus for months. That, in turn, would give the virus many chances to acquire mutations that help it replicate or evade the immune system.

What do these mutations do?

We don’t know for sure. Viruses mutate all the time, and most of these changes don’t affect how deadly or infectious the virus is. In this case, some of these mutations may have arisen purely by chance and may not affect the function of the virus. 

But three mutations in particular have worried experts.

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