But if a mutation helps the virus bind to, and infect, cells more easily then that strain may spread, becoming a dominant variant. Experts last night said there was no need to panic in the UK, as there was no evidence the new Covid-19 mutation was more deadly or that it would threaten the efficacy of vaccines.
Jonathan Ball, professor of molecular virology at the University of Nottingham, said: “Even though a new genetic variant has emerged and is spreading, this can happen purely by chance.
“Therefore, it is important we study any genetic changes as they occur, to work out if they are affecting how the virus behaves, and until we have done that it is premature to make any claims about the potential impacts of virus mutation.”
Vaccines teach the immune system to recognise molecules on the surface of the virus – in this case, the spike protein.
But if mutations change the genetic blueprint for those molecules enough, the vaccine may no longer be effective. This is why the flu vaccine needs to be updated every year depending on which strains are circulating.
Health Secretary Matt Hancock said it was “highly unlikely” the variant would make vaccines less effective.
Alan McNally, professor in microbial evolutionary genomics at the University of Birmingham, said he was impressed the variant was spotted so quickly. He said: “It is important to keep a calm and rational perspective on the strain.”