UK virus strain on track ‘to sweep the world’ and become dominant variant

Leading scientist warns of decade-long battle against Covid-19

ST HELENS, UNITED KINGDOM - JANUARY 18: NHS staff administer the Oxford-AstraZeneca Covid-19 coronavirus vaccine at Totally Wicked Stadium home of St Helen's rugby club, one of the new mass vaccination centres opened today on January 18, 2021 in St Helens, United Kingdom. Ten new mass vaccination centres will start administering covid-19 vaccines in England this week, joining seven existing "hubs," as well as the hospitals and GP practices enlisted in the nationwide effort to give 15 million people a first dose by February 15. (Photo by Christopher Furlong/Getty Images)

The more infectious UK strain of coronavirus is on course to sweep the world, a leading scientist predicted on Thursday.

Prof Sharon Peacock, the head of the UK's genetic surveillance programme, said that the variant would cause problems for years to come.

The new variant was first detected in Kent, in south-east England, and prompted new restrictions to be rushed in before Christmas in the UK.

A national lockdown was imposed as the infection rate surged.

The UK variant, which is 70 per cent more infectious than the original strain, has since spread to more than 50 countries.

Prof Peacock told the BBC the variant had “swept the country” and “it’s going to sweep the world, in all probability”.

"What's really affected us at the moment is transmissibility,” she said.

“Once we get on top of [the virus] or it mutates itself out of being virulent – causing disease – then we can stop worrying about it. But I think, looking into 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."

Current vaccines were designed for the original virus, but scientists are confident that they should still work against the UK variant.

Prof Peacock said the virus may change to no longer be fatal or cause serious illness.

Oxford Vaccine Group chief Prof Andrew Pollard made similar comments earlier in the week when he suggested Covid-19 may turn into an infection similar to the common cold.

He said at the moment there was no cause for alarm from the new variants, as vaccines were still capable of preventing serious illness and death.

“It’s telling us about the future of this virus. It will still find ways of transmitting and causing mild infection, such as colds,” he said.

There are four "variants of concern" identified by government advisers, including the English variant, the South African variant and the Brazilian strain. The fourth is a further mutation of the England variant.

Meanwhile, the uptake of the Covid-19 vaccine in the UK has exceeded expectations with more than 90 per cent of eligible adults choosing to take it.

Health Secretary Matt Hancock said the government assumed only 75 per cent of adults would accept the vaccine when offered.

Sir Jeremy Farrar, director of the Wellcome Trust research fund, said that uptake of vaccines needed to stay high to protect the country from new variants.

“The risk is that they evade and escape the treatments and vaccines we have available today,” he said.

“If we drive down transmission and vaccinate as many people as we can in this country, and critically around the world, we will reduce the number of viruses we have in the world and the number of variants that can trouble us in the future will be much less.”

The warning came as UK ministers faced pressure to end lockdowns in time for summer holidays.

Pressure is also being felt by German Chancellor Angela Merkel who on Thursday urged Germans to have a little more patience with lockdown restrictions, which she extended until March 7.

Ms Merkel said she understood people's loneliness and frustration at having their freedoms curtailed, but that restrictions were still needed because of the risk posed by new virus variants.

She said some schools and hairdressers could open sooner than March 7.

“Experts tell us that it will be only a matter of time until these mutations will become dominant,” she said. “We know that the danger of mutations can again wreck our successes.”

With the emergence of new variants, the World Health Organisation said the focus needed to be on reducing the transmission of the virus to slow the effect of current and future mutations.

“Is it a given that one variant will outcompete the others? Maybe, over time,” said Dr Catherine Smallwood of WHO Europe.

“We don’t know which of the variants that are currently spreading in the European region and in the wider world will be more competitive, but our strategy needs to be blind to the variants themselves and focus on suppressing the virus and all those variants.”