A laboratory technician uses a pipette device to process samples to test for the novel coronavirus Covid-19, at Biogroup Laboratory’s lab in west London on January 21, 2021.
JUSTIN TALLIS | AFP | Getty Images
LONDON — A newly-discovered mutation of the delta variant is being investigated in the U.K. amid worries that it could make the virus even more transmissible and undermine Covid-19 vaccines further.
Still, there are many unknowns surrounding this descendent or subtype of the delta variant — formally known as AY.4.2 — which some are dubbing the new “delta plus” variant.
U.K. government health officials have said it’s too early to tell whether the mutation poses a greater risk to public health than the delta variant, which itself is significantly more infectious than the original Covid-19 strain (and its successor, the alpha variant).
But they have stated that they are monitoring the mutation very closely: it now accounts for 6% of U.K. Covid cases that have been genetically sequenced at a time when infections in the country are rising rapidly.
Here’s what we know, and don’t know, about the variant:
Viruses constantly mutate and the coronavirus that emerged in China in late 2019 has gone through multiple minor variations that have made it virus more infectious and effective at spreading. This was first seen with the alpha variant (first sequenced in the U.K.) that went on to spread globally before it was usurped by the even more transmissible delta variant that was first discovered in India.
Delta, which was dubbed a “variant of concern” by the World Health Organization in May, remains globally dominant.
But last Friday, the U.K.’s Health Security Agency issued a report in which it said “a delta sublineage newly designated as AY.4.2 is noted to be expanding in England.” The agency said it was monitoring the subtype, which includes mutations to the spike protein (A222V and Y145H) that the coronavirus uses to enter our cells.
AY.4.2 is being identified in an increasing number of U.K. Covid cases, with some suggesting it could be a factor in the country’s growing health crisis that has prompted some doctors to call for Covid restrictions to be reimposed.
“This sublineage is currently increasing in frequency,” the U.K.’s Health Security Agency said last week, noting that “in the week beginning 27 September 2021 (the last week with complete sequencing data), this sublineage accounted for approximately 6% of all sequences generated, on an increasing trajectory. This estimate may be imprecise … Further assessment is underway.”
The U.K. is currently seeing a prolonged and worrying spike in Covid cases, reporting between 40,000-50,000 new infections per day in the last week, prompting experts to question why the U.K. is so vulnerable to Covid right now.
The delta subtype is reported to be 10-15% more transmissible than the standard delta variant, but it is too early to say for certain whether it has been causing a spike in cases in the U.K.
It’s worth remembering that although AY.4.2 is being monitored, it has not been classified as a “variant under investigation” or a “variant of concern” by the WHO — that is, it has not been identified as having genetic changes that are expected to affect virus characteristics such as transmissibility, disease severity, immune escape, diagnostic or therapeutic escape.
It also has not been confirmed that it causes significant community transmission or multiple Covid-19 clusters.
Still, that status could change following further monitoring…