A new variant of coronavirus has been found which is growing fast and infecting people in parts of England.
Health Secretary Matt Hancock said at least 60 different local English authorities have recorded infections caused by the new variant.
He told MPs in the House of Commons that over the last week there have been sharp rises in infections across London and other southern areas but there was “nothing to suggest” it made infections worse or that vaccines would no longer work.
“We have to take swift and decisive action which is absolutely essential while the vaccine is being rolled out,” he said.
The changes or mutations involve the spike part on the surface of the virus – the part that helps it infect cells, and the part Covid vaccines are designed to target.
Prof Alan McNally, of the University of Birmingham, told the BBC: “It doesn’t mean it’s more transmissible or more infectious or dangerous. Huge efforts are ongoing at characterising the variant and understanding its emergence. It is important to keep a calm and rational perspective on the strain as this is normal virus evolution and we expect new variants to come and go over time.”
Dr Jeremy Farrar, director of Wellcome, said it was potentially serious. “The surveillance and research must continue, and we must take the necessary steps to stay ahead of the virus.”
Professor Jonathan Ball, Professor of Molecular Virology at Nottingham University, said: “The genetic information in many viruses can change very rapidly and sometimes these changes can benefit the virus – by allowing it to transmit more efficiently or to escape from vaccines or treatments – but many changes have no effect at all.
“Therefore, it is important that 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 important work it is premature to make any claims about the potential impacts of this virus mutation.”