Threat of Covid-19 mutations enters danger zone

UK ‘most risky’ country for new variants as disease tries to dodge vaccines

BRIGHTON, ENGLAND - MARCH 19: Railway staff carry out lateral flow covid tests on colleagues in a temporary testing facility on a converted train parked on platform eight of Brighton railway station on March 19, 2021 in Brighton, England. Govia Thameslink Railway have set up a Covid-19 testing centre for railway staff operating from a Southern Railway train carriage at Brighton Station's platform eight. Staff from Southern, Thameslink, Great Northern and Gatwick Express can get twice-weekly lateral flow tests giving results within half an hour. (Photo by Chris Eades/Getty Images)
Powered by automated translation

The pandemic is at its "most dangerous moment" with the threat of Covid-19 mutating into a variant resistant to current vaccines, a leading scientist said.

The Covid-19 strain could evolve if it learns how to survive the mass vaccination programmes being introduced around the world, Prof Graeme Ackland of Edinburgh University told The National.

In particular, with a high number of people vaccinated and a large number of people infected, Britain is currently the "most risky" country for a new mutation, he said, and that it could get "very nasty, very quickly".


India reported a new double mutation of the virus on Wednesday and the British government announced on Monday that it was urgently developing a new mutant testing technique.

The respected British Medical Journal on Tuesday published a report that debunks some scientific thinking suggesting Covid-19 mutates more slowly than other viruses.

Latest Public Health England data show there are 10 strains now circulating in the UK.


While it now appears to be a race to get the world vaccinated before a deadly and infectious Covid mutation, many western countries are struggling with their programmes, with significant issues in the European Union.

"The big uncertainty at the moment is whether we get a vaccine-resistant mutant," Prof Ackland said. "The coronavirus variants that came out last year had no reason to mutate to become resistant to the vaccine because there was no vaccine.

"Now, because a large fraction of the population is vaccinated, there’s a huge evolutionary advantage for a mutation that’s immune to the vaccine. It could get very nasty, very quickly if that happens.”

The best strategy now is to infect vaccinated people. That's where the evolutionary pressure is on the virus

The physician and computer modelling specialist – who helped lead Rapid Assistance in Modelling the Pandemic, a group of experts in Britain – said the infectious UK variant B1117 was successful in a wave of infections because no one was vaccinated.

“Now there's a big pressure on the virus,” he said. “If you think from the viewpoint of coronavirus, what do you want to do to infect people? The best strategy now is to infect vaccinated people. That's where the evolutionary pressure is on the virus.”

Scientists at Imperial College London, who helped to identify the virulent UK variant, are now developing the ability to respond rapidly if vaccine-resistant strains emerge.

Britain has 468,000 active Covid-19 cases and more than 28 million inoculated with a first vaccine dose, making it vulnerable to a mutant strain.

“We’re entering the most dangerous time at the moment, where there are still lots of cases in the UK and lots of vaccinations. The UK is probably the most risky place for that happening.”

Scientists know that it is challenging to vaccinate at the height of a pandemic because of the mutation risk, he said, “but what else can you do?”

There is also a fear that if a new strain does not evolve in Britain then it could do so in Europe, which is several weeks behind the UK in its vaccination programme. “If coronavirus randomly evolves to find a way around the vaccine then it will spread very fast,” he said.

The BMJ report supports Prof Ackland's thinking, stating that genome sequencing shows that coronavirus mutates at the same rate as Ebola.

“Coronaviruses throw up variants all the time,” the report said: “Some countries will be slower than others to vaccinate their populations. Sars-CoV-2 [Covid-19] and its variants will be around for some time, and concerns around the protection afforded by current vaccines will continue.”

The report, Covid-19: variants and vaccination, suggests that vaccines will be needed "for many years" and will have to change as variants emerge, similar to influenza vaccines.

The British government is urgently developing new technology to rapidly detect new Covid mutations. The method, known as “genotype assay testing”, will halve the time it currently takes to identify a variant of concern.

After the report of a double mutation in India, virologist Shahid Jameel told the BBC that the variant may increase risks and "allow the virus to escape the immune system and make it more infectious".