The variant of coronavirus first found in Kent is predicted to sweep the globe and become the world’s most dominant strain, according to the head of the UK’s genetic surveillance programme.
Speaking to the BBC’s Newscast podcast, Professor Sharon Peacock said the Kent variant has “swept the country, and “it's going to sweep the world, in all probability”.
Professor Peacock also revealed that her job of analysing new virus variants could be required for at least 10 years.
Transmissibility of the variant
The variant was first detected in South East England in September 2020. It led to a mass increase in cases, spreading throughout the UK rapidly, and was cited as the reason for the introduction of lockdown measures in the country over the winter months.
Professor Peacock revealed that the variant’s transmissibility has been the key reason that health officials have struggled to contain it.
Analysis of the variant, known as B117, suggests it is up to 70 per cent more transmissible than the previous dominant strain in the UK. The coronavirus variant has already been detected in more than 50 countries.
“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,” Professor Peacock said.
“But I think, looking in 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."
Will the Kent variant affect vaccines?
Scientists have continued to say that, despite vaccines being designed to fight earlier versions of the coronavirus, they should work against the new mutations, although perhaps not quite as successfully.
Professor Peacock told the BBC that the vaccines currently approved for use in the UK appeared to work well against the existing variants of the coronavirus in the country.
The World Health Organisation (WHO) is now recommending the use of the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine to all countries, even ones tackling new variants of the virus.
The Covid-19 Genomics UK Consortium, a network of public health bodies and labs, are analysing nearly 30,000 positive tests a day. The consortium has now said they aim to genetically screen every positive coronavirus test.
Screening tests help to identify new variants, looking for special features within the virus to see if they are more transmissible, or if they avoid the immune response and affect vaccinations.
Professor Peacock said: “These are the things we are looking out for. I'd say it happens vanishingly rarely but we have to be on the look out for it.”