What is the ‘mutant COVID strain’ and why are experts concerned?

  • Coronaviruses mutate regularly, acquiring about one new mutation in their genome every two weeks. 
  • Most mutations do not significantly change the way the virus acts.
  • This super strain, named B.1.1.7, was first identified in the UK in November.
  • It has since been found in France, Spain, Italy, Iceland, Japan, Singapore, Australia and now the United States. 
  • The new COVID-19 variant has a mutation in the receptor binding domain (RBD) of the spike protein at position 501, where amino acid asparagine (N) has been replaced with tyrosine (Y). 
  • It is more infectious than previous strains and potentially more harmful to children. 
  • It is not, however, believed to be any more lethal.  
  • Public Health England researchers compared 1,769 people infected with the new variant, with 1,769 who had one of the earlier strains of the virus. 
  • Forty-two people in the group were admitted to hospital, of whom 16 had the new variant and 26 the wild type. 
  • Twelve of the variant cases and 10 of the ‘older’ virus cases died within four weeks of testing. 
  • Neither the hospitalization nor the mortality differences were statistically significant.

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