The UK is stepping up testing to find and stop cases from spreading in the community.
New variants of coronavirus are emerging that are more infectious than the one that started the pandemic.
One of these, first found in Kent, could become the world’s dominant strain, the head of the UK’s genetic surveillance programme has predicted.
There are concerns vaccines may not work quite so well against some variants.
There are many thousands of different versions, or variants, of Covid circulating.
Experts’ concerns focus on a few:
It’s not unexpected that new variants have developed – all viruses mutate as they make copies of themselves to spread and thrive.
Most of these differences are inconsequential. A few can even be harmful to the virus’s survival. But some can make it more infectious or threatening.
There is no evidence that any of them cause much more serious illness for the vast majority of people who become infected.
As with the original version, the risk is highest for people who are elderly or have significant underlying health conditions.
For the UK variant there is some research suggesting it may be associated with a 30% higher risk of death. The evidence is not strong and the data is still uncertain though.
Measures such as washing your hands, keeping your distance from other people and wearing a face covering will still help prevent infections. Because the new variants appear to spread more easily it is important to be extra vigilant.
The UK, South Africa and Brazil variants could be much more contagious or easy to catch.
All three have undergone changes to their spike protein – the part of the virus which attaches to human cells.
As a result, they seem to be better at infecting cells and spreading.
Experts think the UK or “Kent” strain emerged in September and may be up to 70% more transmissible or infectious. The latest research by Public Health England puts it between 30% and 50%.
The South Africa variant emerged in October, and has more potentially important changes in the spike protein. Experts have recently found a small number of cases of the UK variant that have one of these more concerning changes too.
It involves a key mutation – called E484K – that may help the virus evade parts of the immune system called antibodies.
The Brazil variant emerged in July and has this E484K mutation too.
Current vaccines were designed around earlier versions of coronavirus, but scientists believe they should still work against the new ones, although perhaps not quite as well.
Early results from Moderna suggest its vaccine is effective against the South Africa variant, although the immune response may not be as strong or long-lasting.
Variants could emerge in the future that are more different again.
Even in the worst case scenario, vaccines could be redesigned and tweaked to be a better match – in a matter or weeks or months, if necessary, say experts.
As with flu, where a new shot is given each year to account for any changes in circulating flu viruses, something similar could happen for coronavirus.
More variants will emerge.
Scientists around the world are on the look-out and any important ones will be closely studied and monitored.
Experts are already working on updating coronavirus vaccines. The UK Government has announced a deal with biopharmaceutical company CureVac to develop vaccines against future variants, with a pre-order of 50m doses.