A new mutation of coronavirus is the most dominant in the world and it is spreading quicker in the UK than the original strain from Wuhan in China, an expert has warned.
Professor Nick Loman, who is part of the Covid-19 Genomics Consortium, said the new strain – known as D614G – has an observable impact on cases in humans and is speeding up outbreaks across the world.
But according to Prof Loman, who is based at the University of Birmingham, the new strain is not thought to increase the risk of death or lengthen hospital stays.
He said scientists analysed more than 40,000 genomes in the UK and found D614G mainly increases transmissions between adults.
Prof Loman told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “It exists in the spike protein, which is a very important way that the coronavirus can enter human cells, and we have been noticing in the UK and worldwide that this mutation has been increasing in frequency.
“This mutation was predicted first by computer modelling to have some impact on the structure of that protein and the ability of the virus to bind and enter cells and then quite recently was shown in laboratory experiments to increase the infectivity of cells.”
He said he suspected D614G would not affect the race to find a coronavirus vaccine as it was the most dominant strain in around 75% of cases.
“This increase in this mutation is a worldwide phenomenon,” he said.
“The original virus out of Wuhan had the D-type, but the G-type has become much more dominant across the world, including the UK.”
Dismissing any concerns that the new strain signals a new potentially deadly phase of the pandemic he said its impact is thought to be confined to transmissibility.
He added: “It’s a small impact, we think, and we’re not completely confident about that, but we found by testing what happened in the UK that the viruses that contained the G-type of mutation seemed to form clusters of cases faster, which ended up being bigger than viruses with the D-mutation.
“We didn’t see any significant association with survival and the length of hospital stays with this mutation – we don’t think this mutation is important in changing virulence. The effect seems to be on transmissibility.”
The news comes as the UK coronavirus death toll has risen by 79 today to 45,501.
The latest figures account for deaths in all setting and are released ahead of legislation making the wearing of face coverings mandatory in English shops comes into force.
From Friday all but those with specific exemption will be required to cover their nose and mouth when shopping.
The government said population-wide use of masks could help keep the Covid-19 reproduction number (R rate) below one.
Enforcement will be carried out by police – not retail staff, and rules will be the same as those currently applicable on public transport in England.
This means children under 11 and people with certain disabilities will be exempt.
Announcing the move, a Number 10 spokesperson said: “There is growing evidence that wearing a face covering in an enclosed space helps protect individuals and those around them from coronavirus.
“The prime minister has been clear that people should be wearing face coverings in shops and we will make this mandatory from July 24.”