Researchers are working to tease out the significance of the SARS-CoV-2 strain identified in the UK, Science reports. This strain, it says, has developed 17 new variants, eight of which are in the spike protein gene.
Last week, UK Health Secretary Matt Hancock announced that this new strain had been identified in more than 1,000 cases, especially in southern England.
But as Science notes, whether B.1.1.7, as the strain is called, is more easily transmitted than other SARS-CoV-2 strains is not yet clear. It says that while some analyses suggest that it might be, the increase in transmission could be due to chance. Additionally, Science adds that while two of the spike protein gene variants — called N501Y and 69-70del — are concerning, another variant might actually make the virus spread less easily. However, another strain uncovered in South Africa that seems to be spreading quickly also has the N501Y variant.
Still, the University of Basel's Emma Hodcroft cautions at Science that early data can be messy. Previously, a strain identified in Spain was thought to lead to higher mortality, but turned out not to, it notes. "I think that is a very strong reminder that we always have to be really careful with early data," she adds.