Independent SAGE scientists share update as new mutation triggers today’s lockdown announcements

Independent SAGE, a group of scientists who are working together to provide independent scientific advice to the UK government and public on how to minimise deaths and support Britain’s recovery from the COVID-19 crisis, have today issued a new statement after a new mutation in the virus and rising hospital admissions across the UK led to three UK leaders amending UK plans for Christmas.

The group had already called for urgent action yesterday.  Dr Kit Yates of the University of Bath, said:

“Cases and hospital admissions are rising almost everywhere and deaths are beginning to rise as well. Add to that the impact of Christmas mixing and we have a recipe for a third peak which is significantly higher than the second,” he said.  “It’s like a car crash playing out in slow motion. We can see what’s coming, but there’s very little that can now be done about it.”

Evidence of a new strain with the potential to spread more quickly has added weight to the scientists calls, and they issued this further statement today – we are reproducing the announcement unedited and exactly as submitted to us:

1.The virus

  • Viruses all mutate – most mutations render the virus non-viable, but occasionally they lead to some characteristic which is advantageous for the virus (meaning, the virus can transmit better- that’s the goal for a virus, if we were to ascribe them a consciousness) 
  • By definition, new mutations which are maintained, and spread are those which confer some advantage- those that don’t will disappear. It is basic evolutionary theory but speeded up millions of times given the rapid viral replication rate. The most important way to reduce emergence of new mutants is to reduce spread of the virus. 
  • In the early period after a virus crosses the species barrier, there are likely a series of mutations which occur to make the virus better adapted to the new host (in this case humans).  We may still be in in this early period for COVID-19 
  • The latest variant, named VUI202012/01 has a lot of different mutations compared the original Wuhan reported virus. Many of these mutations also appear on their own, or in different combinations in some other variants which are circulating, in the UK and globally 
  • The extensive genetic analyses being undertaken within the UK Covid Genomics Consortium may have allowed the growth of this variant to be identified at an early stage, and similar variants are probably circulating in other countries 
  • The Chief Science Advisor, Patrick Vallance has reported this variant as 70% more transmissible than other circulating variants. It is unclear as of yet precisely how this figure has been arrived at.  There are different approaches to study this issue. Firstly, through laboratory experiments, looking how the variant grows in cells in a test tube. Whilst providing useful information, such experiments may have limited applicability since they can only study how well the virus replication in the absence of an immune system to control it. The second way are animal experiments to see how the virus replicates, causes disease, and transmits to others animals. The third way is to analyse data from the communities in which the virus is spreading and trying to prove that virus transmissibility itself is contributing to increased COVID-19 spread, as opposed to suboptimal social distancing and infection control.  All three approaches are currently, or will in the near future be undertaken.


2.The epidemiology 

  • Distinguishing between cause and effect very is difficult. So, a virus variant which happens to be there at the onset of a super spreader event (e.g. university opening) will spread rapidly as a consequence of social interaction- this doesn’t mean that the rapid spread is because of that specific virus. Any COVID variant could do the same. 
  • One sort of analysis going on is asking whether the concentration of virus in swabs from people infected with the new variant is higher than those infected with other variants. In other words, the new variant is more transmissible because it replicates better in the nose and throat, and therefore that individual more likely to infect someone they are in contact with- even a 10 % increase in replication of the new variant would have a major impact at a population level. We await more details of these estimates. 


3. Impact 

  • The most likely reason for a higher transmissible virus is that the virus replicates to a higher level, or for a longer time, in the infected individual. If this is the case, one would imagine that those individuals will also be at higher risk of disease, since the immune system will be controlling it less. At the moment, scientists are saying there is no evidence of different disease outcome, but of course there is always a time lag between infections and hospitalisations. If disease outcome is no different for the new variant, then it’s a bit of a conundrum 
  • There is evidence that some of the mutations in the virus genome reduce the efficiency of PCR diagnostic tests- since these tests are based on detecting specific COVID-19-specific genetic sequences. 
  • There is also evidence that these variants may reduce the effectiveness of some immune therapies, such as monoclonal antibodies or convalescent serum. 
  • There is no evidence that the variant impacts on the natural immune response generated after infection, although this requires monitoring 
  • Since vaccines generate antibodies which target many different parts of the spike protein (in which the mutations cause changes), unlikely that specific individual variants will lead to a loss of vaccine effectiveness


4. What to do about it?

At this early stage, it appears that some evidence points to the new variant being of increased infectiousness. However, the virus is spread in exactly the same way therefore, our optimal approach must be to limit spread as much as possible. This requires strict social distancing with infection control, a fully functional find test trace isolate and support system, and rapid vaccine rollout.

 We reaffirm our view that we should aggressively move towards zero COVID. Whilst we recognize the difficulty for eradication, any level of tolerance of virus transmission within the community risks further evolution and growth of new mutants, which will further compromise our ability to control the virus. Indeed, the variants appears to remain at low levels in those areas of the country with low overall transmission rates.

We applaud the UK COVID Genomics consortium for becoming world leaders in the genetic mapping of the virus, allowing us to identify and quickly respond to newly emerging variants.

The concepts and concerns regarding new viral mutants can easily be miscommunicated, and lead to panic, particularly whilst we remain uncertain of the implications. We urge communication of new information and data to be undertaken by senior scientific advisors rather than politicians.


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Independent SAGE offer live streamed briefings to the press each Friday, you can view all the SAGE briefings openly and freely on their YouTube Channel: