The coronavirus variants and which ones scientists are most worried about

As with any other virus, new variants of the coronavirus are constantly being researched and discovered.

Over time, changes in the virus’s genetic code can accumulate, and these new variants can be passed on from person to person. Most of the time, the changes are so small that they have little effect. But every now and then a virus mutates in ways that benefit it, such as allowing it to spread faster, and raise concerns about changes in the behavior of the virus.

The Kent mutation in the coronavirus was discovered in September and quickly spread across the UK. Since then, new mutations have been identified around the world that pose different threats as we try to tackle the rollout of coronavirus pandemics and vaccinations.

Here are the different variations we know and the ones that most worry scientists.

What do new variants mean for the pandemic?

Doctor Emma Hodcroft, a molecular epidemiologist at the University of Bern in Switzerland, is one of the developers of Next Strain, a project that tracks mutations around the world.

Speaking to BBC Radio Four, she said that new variants could affect both the way the vaccines work and the risk of re-infection with Covid-19.

She said, “It’s important to remember that mutations are a perfectly normal part of a virus’s life cycle, but what has become worrying in recent months is where these mutations appear in the virus and what impact they have on our virus.” Epidemic. What we’ve seen in the past few months is that these mutations aren’t always as neutral as we hoped they could stay closer to the start of the pandemic, and they seem to affect things like transferability.

“Perhaps one of the most worrying things of all is that they seem like they could lead the virus to re-infect people and possibly even bypass vaccines. This is what it’s all about right now, especially in countries that are really too big Once outbreaks have occurred, the virus can learn to bypass this existing immunity, which could affect vaccination efforts. “

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What are the new variants of the coronavirus?

Kent variant

Genetic evidence suggests that the Kent variant appeared in September 2020 and then spread to the population in very small amounts by mid-November. The increase in cases related to the new variant first became known in December when Public Health England investigated why infection rates in Kent had not fallen despite national restrictions. A cluster associated with this variant was found to spread rapidly in London and Essex.

Mutations in the spike protein mean the virus is about 50% more contagious and easier to spread between people.

South African variant

According to the British government, the variant first identified in South Africa appears to have been created around the same time as the variant from Great Britain. Not only does it contain the mutation to the Spike protein, it also contains a number of other mutations.

Laboratory tests have shown that a mutation known as E484K may have some degree of escape from the body’s antibodies and is therefore of “potential public health”.

Brazilian variant

Two variants of “interest” have been identified in Brazil. The first variant is currently classified by PHE as an “investigated variant” and has a low number of mutations, but contains E484K. This variant has so far been detected in 11 countries including Great Britain.

The second variant, also known as P.1, was first discovered in Manaus, as were travelers from Brazil who came to Japan.

As of March 16, a total of 12 cases had been identified in the UK. This variant has been called the “questionable variant” because it shares some important mutations with the variant first identified in South Africa, such as E484K and N501Y. It is possible that this variant is less responsive to current vaccines, but more work is needed to understand this.

When asked about reports that the Brazilian variant has a greater impact on younger people, Dr. Hodcroft to Radio Four: “This is really new data and it is difficult to know exactly what is going on, but it is certainly interesting.

“One possibility is that vaccination efforts have naturally begun in many countries and are heavily aimed at the elderly. This means that while you are seeing more infections in young people, you may not be seeing numbers anymore. In proportion, you will start to think that You see more young people than older people because they are vaccinated.

“Similarly, we might find that some variants also target differences in the immune system that appear with age. The immune system is not static over time, and it is possible that some variants could produce a stronger immune response in younger people, however this is really hypothetical at the moment, it is important to remember that we don’t have really good data to say for sure if this could be an effect of the vaccination or if this is a real change that is on the virus is due. “

Bristol variant

Two new variants were discovered in January 2021, one in the Bristol area and one in Liverpool. The variant discovered in the Bristol area was classified as a “questionable variant” and consists of the British variant with the addition of a mutation known as E484K.

The E484K mutation is present in the South African variant as well as a number of other globally sequenced variants. While there is currently no evidence that this mutation alone causes more severe disease or greater transmissibility, laboratory experiments have reported that it results in weaker neutralization by antibodies.


The variant discovered in the Liverpool area was classified as an “examined variant”. It consists of the original wild-type Covid-19 with the addition of the same E484K mutation. Again, there is currently no evidence that this variant causes any more severe disease or greater communicability, but Public Health England is continuing to monitor the situation.


In February 2021, cases of a variant previously discovered in other countries including Nigeria, Denmark and Canada were reported in the UK. Initial reports suggested the variant originated in Nigeria, but subsequent research has confirmed that it was first discovered in the UK.

The new variant was called the examined variant (VUI). The small number of cases found is geographically dispersed across England and improved contact tracing and genome sequencing have been carried out to monitor the evolving situation.

There is currently no evidence that these mutations cause more severe disease or increased communicability, but Public Health England is continuing to monitor the situation.


Dr. Hodcroft said a variant of interest to scientists recently appeared in travelers to Tanzania, although little is currently known about it. She added that this can often be the case when facilities for virus variant surveillance and research are not as advanced as in other countries.

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Which variant gives scientists the most concern?

When asked which variant caused the most concern, Dr. Hodcroft: “I think it’s difficult to pick just one right now, but I think the variants that carry the ‘484’ mutation that some people may have heard of. This is a mutation that is found in the Variant that was first identified in South Africa and Brazil.

‘This is thought to be related to this ability to re-infect, which is what makes some vaccines really not work that well. While we see this in these two worrying variants, we are actually seeing this mutation in other places and in particular in a variant sometimes called the New York variant, which has spread pretty well in the US in recent months.

‘It’s not the only place you see this mutation, and I think that’s one thing that scientists really think about – is it more about the variant itself, or more about the mutations and what combinations they come in That’s what we really need to worry about when we see the same mutations or combinations of mutations over and over again. “


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