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Covid-19: New coronavirus variant is identified in UK

BMJ 2020; 371 doi: https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.m4857 (Published 16 December 2020) Cite this as: BMJ 2020;371:m4857

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  1. Jacqui Wise
  1. London

England’s health secretary, Matt Hancock, has told parliament that a new variant of covid-19 has been identified and may be driving infections in the south east, leading to headlines about “mutant covid.” Jacqui Wise answers some common questions

What do we know about this new SARS-CoV-2 variant?

It’s been snappily named VUI-202012/01 (the first “Variant Under Investigation” in December 2020) and is defined by a set of 17 changes or mutations. One of the most significant is an N501Y mutation in the spike protein that the virus uses to bind to the human ACE2 receptor. Changes in this part of spike protein may, in theory, result in the virus becoming more infectious and spreading more easily between people.

How was the variant detected?

It was picked up by the Covid-19 Genomics UK (COG-UK) consortium, which undertakes random genetic sequencing of positive covid-19 samples around the UK. The consortium is a partnership of the UK’s four public health agencies, as well as the Wellcome Sanger Institute and 12 academic institutions.

Since being set up in April 2020 the consortium has sequenced 140 000 virus genomes …

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