SCIENTISTS are tracking a new strain of coronavirus found in the UK as efforts to increase targeted testing and suppress the spread of variants of concern are expanded.

Public Health England (PHE) revealed on Thursday, March 4, that the 16 cases were discovered through genomic horizon scanning on 15 February.

Health minister Lord Bethell said on Thursday that Britain was the most likely place in the world where a mutant variation of coronavirus will occur as it will happen in an area where there is “a high infection rate and a large amount of suppression of the virus by either a lockdown or a vaccine programme”.

Speaking in the Lords, he said the country “must be on the balls of its feet” to be ready for such “unhelpful news”.

Meanwhile, broadcaster and leading fertility expert Lord Winston warned the risk of a dangerous new variant against which there was no defence was “eventually likely to be inevitable”.


‘Under investigation’

The variant, referred to as VUI-202102/04, is understood to have originated in the UK and was designated a “variant under investigation” (VUI) by PHE nine days after it was discovered.

New strains of coronavirus emerge regularly and scientists conduct frequent analysis to determine which are of concern.

The new findings mean that scientists are now monitoring four VUIs and four “variants of concern” (VOC) in the UK.

PHE said this latest identified strain, also known as B.1.1.318, contains the E484K mutation which has been found in the South Africa and Brazil variants in the UK, which are both VUIs.

Experts believe that this mutation may help the virus evade some immunity from vaccination or from previous infection.

However, the new variant does not feature the N501Y mutation that is present in all VOCs.

All 16 people who have tested positive for the variant, and their contacts, have all been traced and advised to isolate.

PHE said the cases were geographically spread across the UK, but surge or mass testing would not be necessary as this is only required for VOCs, such as the Brazil strain.

The UK now has eight Covid-19 variants on its watch list in total, four of which are VUIs and four VOCs.

Six cases of this VOC, known as P1 and first detected in the Brazilian city of Manaus, have been found in the UK - three in Scotland and three in England.

England's health Secretary Matt Hancock said on Tuesday, March 2, that the search for a missing person infected with the variant had been narrowed down to 379 households in the south east of England.

The person infected with the variant who has not been traced used a home testing kit but did not complete their contact details. Mr Hancock has said incidents like this are rare and only occur in around 0.1 per cent of tests.

Scientists are now looking at tweaking coronavirus vaccines to keep pace with the new, emerging variants to ensure that they continue to offer high protection as the virus mutates.

The UK's drug regulator the MHRA has said new vaccines can be fast-tracked through the approval system without "lengthy" clinical studies.