A new variant of the novel coronavirus detected in the UK may spread faster, British health authorities said on Saturday, stressing that they were still trying to determine whether it was also more deadly.
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The announcement comes ahead of a press conference with Prime Minister Boris Johnson, scheduled for today, which could announce the introduction of new restrictions in the face of a new surge in cases, notably in London and in the south-east of England.
Movement could be limited in these areas, according to British media, as a new variant of the virus has been identified in the south-east.
“The Advisory Group on New and Emerging Respiratory Virus Threats (NERVTAG) now considers this new strain may spread faster,” England Chief Medical Officer Chris Whitty said in a statement.
“There is no indication at this time that this new strain causes a higher death rate or that it affects vaccines and treatments, but urgent work is underway to confirm this,” he continued.
The UK has informed the World Health Organization (WHO) of the faster spread of this variant, he added.
Previous mutations of SARS-CoV-2 have already been observed and reported worldwide.
In total, some 38 million people in England, or 68% of the population, already live in the “very high” alert zone, the strictest level of restrictions that involves the closure of pubs, restaurants and museums, as well as the prohibition for households to mix with exceptions.
Wednesday, without going back on the authorization given for three homes to meet around Christmas despite the pandemic, Boris Johnson had called for caution and to opt for “small” Christmas parties.
However, he refused on Friday to rule out a third confinement for England, while Wales and Northern Ireland decided to reconfigure after Christmas.
The United Kingdom, the country in Europe hardest hit with Italy, with more than 66,500 dead, launched a massive vaccination campaign on December 8, targeting the elderly and caregivers as a priority.
After the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, the British Medicines Agency (MHRA) is expected to approve a second vaccine on December 28 or 29, the one developed by the AstraZeneca laboratory with the University of Oxford, according to The Telegraph newspaper.