(Image: SOPA/Pietro Recchia/Sipa USA)

This morning UK Health Secretary Matt Hancock warned a new variant of coronavirus “may be associated” with faster spread of the virus in the south-east of England. 

It’s not the first time politicians have warned of a virus mutation. Last month South Australian Premier Steven Marshall warned of a “very sneaky” COVID-19 strain (despite no evidence to suggest Adelaide’s strain was worse than any other).

The virus is always mutating

Viruses are constantly mutating, with every person infected with coronavirus likely to have a slightly different version, University of Queensland infectious disease specialist Paul Griffin tells Crikey. 

“All viruses mutate and this coronavirus is actually mutating at a slightly slower pace than most viruses,” he said. 

Around the world scientists have been mapping the genetic sequence of the virus and watching to see if any variants change its behaviour, making it more transmissible or more deadly. 

So far just one strain, D614G, has mutated to a point where it’s a little more effective at spreading. This strain has been circulating in Australia for months.

“We’re analysing this closer than any pathogen in the past,” Griffin said. 

The UK and SA officials have differed in their approach discussing these changes. While SA officials milked the disaster narrative with no evidence, Hancock said there was “nothing to suggest” the variant caused worse disease or that vaccines would no longer work.

Spike in cases not due to the mutations

Average daily hospital admissions in England have increased by 13% in the past week with more than 20,000 new cases and 232 COVID-related deaths recorded in the past 24 hours. 

There’s also been a spike of cases across Europe in the lead-up to Christmas, with harsh lockdowns announced.

“While numbers are going up there they’re going to in a lot of parts of the world due to timing and their winter,” Griffin said.

Germany tightened its restrictions last week and the Netherlands has closed schools, museums, gyms and hairdressers. In Belgium, at least 75 people have been infected after a man playing Santa Claus visited a residential care home. 

London is set to go into “tier three” restrictions, with no guests allowed in the home and pubs and cafes open only for takeaway. These restrictions will be slightly eased across Christmas to allow three households to form a bubble.

India is also battling a third wave. Intensive care units are full or nearing capacity and doctors are seeing more and more young people presenting with serious symptoms, worsened by pollution as families meet for Hindu holiday festivals. 

The vaccine is no silver bullet 

This week the UK started doling out the first 800,000 doses of Pfizer’s vaccine to frontline workers and those aged over 80. But the vaccine starts being effective two weeks after the first dose. Efficacy climbs to 95% seven days after the second dose — given three weeks after the first — is administered. 

The vaccine is also being administered across the US. White House staff members were initially some of the first in line but this has been delayed following media coverage.

Hospitals around the US have warned of a crisis of capacity in intensive care units with more than 16 million cases and 300,000 deaths.