A new variant of coronavirus has been identified in the southeast of England that could present problems for the UK’s vaccination programme, the health secretary has announced.
Speaking in the Commons, Matt Hancock said: “Over the last few days, thanks to our world-class genomic capability in the UK, we have identified a new variant of coronavirus which may be associated with the faster spread in the south of England.”
“Initial analysis suggests that this variant is growing faster than existing variants,” Hancock told MPs.
“We’ve currently identified over 1,000 cases with this variant predominantly in the south of England. Although cases have been identified in nearly 60 different local authority areas and numbers are increasing rapidly,” he added.
Ministers have notified the World Health Organisation, Hancock announced. Similar variants are thought to have been identified in other countries over the past few months.
“At this point there is currently nothing to suggest that this variant is more likely to cause serious disease, and the latest clinical advice is that it’s highly unlikely that this mutations would fail to respond to a vaccine,” the health secretary said.
However, Hancock’s comments sparked concern that the new strain would scupper the wide-scale rollout of the Pfizer/Biontech vaccine, which is specifically suited to tackle the SARS-CoV-2 strain.
It comes as the government announced London will enter Tier 3 from midnight tomorrow alongside areas in Essex and Hertfordshire, meaning more than 10m people will be plunged into the highest level of restrictions.
Latest data from Public Health England showed there was an increase in coronavirus case rates in all 32 London boroughs in the seven days to 9 December.
The health secretary added that officials do not currently know “the extent” to which the new variant is behind the surge in London and surrounding regions.
“But no matter its cause we have to take swift and decisive action, which unfortunately is absolutely essential to control this deadly disease, while the vaccine has rolled out,” he said.
The new variant is currently being cultured at Porton Down, where Public Health England also has a research laboratory.
Hancock last week declared Tuesday the UK’s “V-Day” after 90-year-old Margaret Keenan became the first person in the world to receive a coronavirus vaccine outside of a trial.
Keenan’s inoculation marked the start of Britain’s largest vaccination programme in history, with jabs of the Pfizer/Biontech vaccine set to be administered at dozens of hospital hubs across the country.
Around 800,000 doses are expected to be available in the UK by the end of this week, with care home residents and carers, the over-80s and some health service workers at the front of the queue.
Britain has ordered 40m doses of the Pfizer/BionTech vaccine — enough to vaccinate 20m people in a country of 67m.
Health officials will turn to other vaccines on the horizon to complete the UK’s vaccination programme, including the Astrazeneca/University of Oxford vaccine, of which the government has ordered 100m doses, and the Moderna vaccine, which the UK is set to receive 7m doses of.