Schools could be closed for all of January amid fears that the mutant
With cases surging in many parts of the country,
Officials told the Mail that the reopening of schools was now ‘all down to the science’ surrounding the new strain’s behaviour and its infectiousness in young people.
They even admitted that plans to test all pupils before they return may not be enough to guarantee a January reopening if scientists’ fears about the strain are proven.
Appropriate measures: Priti Patel
Yesterday, Home Secretary Priti Patel would only commit to saying that schools would go back ‘eventually’, adding that the Government would ‘take all the appropriate measures around protecting children’.
A Downing Street source said: ‘We are looking at the numbers and the evidence around the new strain.
‘There is some evidence that the new variant spreads more easily among children.
‘We need to look closely at that as it develops and consider what further action we might need to take to prevent schools becoming a source of infection.’
Publicly, the Department for Education is sticking by its plan which will see most secondary school pupils learning from home until January 11, when they will resume classroom learning.
But officials admit it would be an ‘important moment’ if it’s found that children are now able to spread the virus as easily as adults.
Professor Wendy Barclay, a member of the Government’s respiratory advisory committee Nervtag, said the new strain may be better at infiltrating the body, putting youngsters on a ‘more level playing field’ compared with adults.
The Department for Education is sticking by its plan which will see most secondary school pupils learning from home until January 11, when they will resume classroom learning
Last night, Labour’s education spokesman Kate Green and schools spokesman Wes Streeting wrote to Education Secretary Gavin Williamson asking that he publish any scientific advice on ‘the spread of the virus in schools and colleges and the risks this poses to students, staff and wider transmission in the community’.
‘Parents, students and staff deserve answers now about how you intend to keep students learning and provide a safe working environment for staff’, they said. Boris Johnson and Priti Patel have both been forced to equivocate on whether term will be able to begin as planned.
On Monday, the PM was unable to guarantee schools resuming in-person teaching in January, saying the plan for a staggered return would go ahead ‘if we possibly can’.
The start to the spring term has already been delayed by ministers. Under the current plan, only those facing GCSEs and A-levels in the summer, as well as the children of key workers and those in vulnerable situations, will have face-to-face learning in the week starting January 4.
This is to try to give schools time to set up a system of lateral flow testing for all students and staff, starting with year groups who are in school, followed by those learning from home.
But with less than a fortnight to go, schools are yet to receive instructions from ministers as to how to go about setting up testing facilities and recruiting volunteers to run the programme.
The Department for Education hopes the lack of time – as well as a lack of support from teachers – can be overcome with assistance from military planners and goodwill from parents offering help.
But some school leaders are already preparing themselves for a widespread return to school being delayed until February.
Geoff Barton, General Secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, has urged Mr Williamson’s department to ‘not rigidly stick to its plan come what may’.
Sources insist the Education Secretary is ‘not being doctrinaire’ and will heed SAGE advice, including on whether the testing system will be enough to guarantee safety in schools.
An important scientific justification for keeping schools open dates back to August, when the Chief and Deputy Chief Medical Officers of the UK wrote a joint statement in support.
In it, they said that the ‘reopening of schools has usually not been followed by a surge of Covid-19 in a timescale that implies schools are the principal reason for the surge’.
However there is renewed scientific interest in the role schools could have played in transmission more recently, when infections rose in areas like Kent despite a host of counter-measures.
The Harris Federation’s Sir Dan Moynihan told the BBC his schools in the South East ‘were surprised and confused to see an almost exponential rise in the number of case’ over the last few weeks.
He suggested that safety procedures which had been working well had ceased to be effective and that this could be explained by the mutant strain’s increased transmissibility.
‘Certainly, in the final week of term we had 750 positive confirmed cases in our schools, and if you were to plot this on a line graph, it’s a pretty steep line from the middle of November to now’, he said,
‘We couldn’t really understand why because our systems and procedures are rigorous for keeping people separate and distanced.
And the Government’s announcement about a new variant and possible easier transmission seems to explain what we were looking at.’
In a further evidence of a shift of direction, the Department for Education last night admitted the plan to reopen schools was under ‘constant review’.
‘We want all pupils to return in January as school is the best place for their development and mental health, but as the Prime Minister has said, it is right that we follow the path of the pandemic and keep our approach under constant review,’ a spokesman said.
Is the mutant form of Covid REALLY more infectious to children? Top scientists who raised alarm over the fast-spreading variant say there’s not enough data to make the link
Scientists researching the new variant of
Professor Neil Ferguson, a
But members of COVID-19 Genomics UK (COG-UK) today said they are ‘not familiar’ with any data to suggest this might be the case.
COG-UK has examined the genetics of more than 160,000 cases of coronavirus in the UK and is constantly watching how the virus evolves to see whether any of the mutations are important, as this one named VUI-202012/1 has become.
They said there had not yet been enough cases of the new variant recorded and that more data is needed to make any comments on how it affects specific groups.
Professor Ferguson said he has seen data showing the variant making up an unusually large proportion of cases being seen in children, but is not yet sure why.
Members of COG-UK also confirmed the warning of Britain’s chief scientist Sir Patrick Vallance when they said the new variant was all over the UK already, not just in London and the East and South East.
But it will be a couple more weeks before they start to get enough data to confirm whether it is any more deadly or more likely to leave people in hospital, with most people who have caught it still in the middle of their infection period.
Virus genetics experts said they will need to analyse data from thousands more cases of coronavirus caused by the new variant to be able to say whether it is more likely to infect children than previous versions of the virus (Pictured: Schoolchildren in Milton Keynes on December 1)
BioNTech says it’s Covid jab should work against mutated strain
The co-founder of BioNTech said today it is ‘highly likely’ the German firm’s vaccine will work against the mutant strain of Covid spreading rapidly in the UK.
Ugur Sahin promised that in the unlikely scenario the jab becomes ineffective, his team could re-engineer the vaccine to target the new variant within six weeks.
His comments come amid concerns the strain might make vaccines less effective because of the mutations that have occurred on the virus’s spike protein, which it uses to latch onto human cells and cause illness.
Alterations to the spike are significant because most Covid vaccines, including
Test are being carried out to see if
But in attempt to calm fears about the variant, he added: ‘Scientifically, it is highly likely that the immune response by this vaccine also can deal with the new virus variant.’
Professor Ferguson made the comment to journalists in a briefing with SAGE sub-group NERVTAG yesterday.
He said there is not enough evidence yet to prove the theory of children being more susceptible but that it is a possibility.
He claimed that the number of cases of the new variant in under-15s is significantly higher than other strains, although neither Professor Ferguson nor PHE have published any data to prove it.
Speaking today, Professor Sharon Peacock, director of COG-UK and a microbiologist at Cambridge University, said: ‘The data that was discussed at NERVTAG, this group are not familiar with. I believe it’s held by PHE.
‘We are not aware of an increase in children and we don’t have data of an increase in children.’
Professor Tom Connor, a virus evolution expert at the University of Cardiff and member of COG-UK and Public Health Wales, added that scientists would need ‘a much larger number of cases’ to be able to determine the effects on children.
Professor Ferguson explained today that data for cases of the new variant shows a bigger proportion of them in under-15s than other strains.
He said this could be because the new variant is more likely to cause symptoms – which have been rare with other variants of the virus – or because it is genuinely spreading faster and infecting more children, meaning more come forward.
Professor Ferguson told MailOnline: ‘There is a signal of a small change in the data, but it’s not huge and we don’t yet know the reason.’
Scientists have suggested that children might be more susceptible to the new variant of the virus because it is better able to latch onto people’s ACE-2 receptors that the virus uses to get into the body.
It is not clear whether this is an effect specific to children, or just a by-product of the fact that this variant may be more infectious for people of all ages.
Fears that it could spread more readily between children are cause for concern because social distancing efforts are harder to enforce on young people.
Tracking of samples of the new variant by COG-UK shows that cases have been found all over England, as well as in south and north Wales, and in Scotland. The green dots are not relative to the number of people infected and may only represent one person. Experts said ‘by far the highest concentration’ of cases is in London, the East and South East of England
His comments come amid concerns the strain might make vaccines less effective because of the mutations that have occurred on the virus’s spike protein, which it uses to latch onto human cells and cause illness (Original illustration of the virus by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention)
Schools could face closure in the new year if the variant can’t be brought under control and is being discovered in children.
Public Health England said it was doing more research to work out how the variant affects children.
Professor Susan Hopkins, deputy director of its National Infection Service, said: ‘Further studies are being undertaken to better understand the characteristics of the variant virus. It is too early to tell whether there is a shift in age distribution.
‘Lockdown measures across the South East have caused a reduction in contact between older adults, which may account for the apparent higher proportion of rates in children and younger adults.’
There is still not much known about the new variant of the virus, which was brought to public attention for the first time last week.
Cases of it appeared to have exploded in the UK in mid-November and it is now on course to become the country’s dominant strain.
Experts say examples of it have been found in all corners of England, as well as in Scotland and Wales, and that it is quickly replacing other versions of the virus.
This is thought to be because it has evolved to be more catching – Boris Johnson claimed it may be up to 70 per cent more infectious in a dramatic press conference at the weekend – although it may still be because it was in the right place at the right time.
Dr Jeffrey Barrett, a member of COG-UK and a geneticist at the Wellcome Sanger Institute in London, said today: ‘The variant is present in many places… it’s certainly not isolated in one place.’
He said that although ‘by far the highest concentration’ was in London, the South East and East of England, there have also been samples from the South West, the Midlands and the North of England, although in ‘relatively small numbers of cases’.
Experts say it will be a couple more weeks before enough data has emerged to make any conclusions about the effects of the new variant of the virus.
Because most of the people infected with it caught the virus in November, they are not yet out of the time frame of possible severe Covid-19 or death.
It usually takes around four weeks for someone to either completely recover or die after they’ve caught the virus, COG said.
Dr Tom Connor said: ‘We’re not at the point to have outcome information now. A lot of people infected with this particular variant are part-way through the infection and they haven’t recovered yet.’
He said that 28-day outcome information would probably become available towards the end of December or into January.
QUESTIONS ANSWERED ON NEW COVID MUTATION: HOW DID IT HAPPEN, IS IT MORE DANGEROUS AND HOW LONG HAS IT BEEN IN THE UK?
By David Churchill
What has happened to the coronavirus to trigger such concern?
A new strain of Covid has developed which is said to spread far faster. A ‘strain’ is a new version of a virus which has genetic mutations. The new strain is a version of Sars-Cov-2, the coronavirus which causes the disease Covid-19.
It has been named VUI-202012/01. These letters and numbers stand for ‘variant under investigation’ and the month, December 2020.
What makes it so worrying?
This particular variant is defined by up to 17 changes or mutations in the coronavirus spike protein. It is the combination of some of these changes which scientists believe could make it more infectious.
It is thought they could help the virus’ spike protein latch on to human cells and gain entry more easily.
Is it certain the new variation is accelerating the spread of the virus?
No, but scientists say preliminary evidence suggests it does.
Boris Johnson said it may spread up to 70 per cent more easily than other strains of the virus, potentially driving up the ‘R rate’ – which measures how quickly the virus spreads – significantly.
On Saturday night, Mr Johnson said it could drive up the ‘R rate’ by as much as 0.4.
This would be particularly significant in areas such as Eastern England, where it is 1.4, and both London and the South East, where it is 1.3. The ‘R rate’ must remain below 1 for infections to decrease.
Is the new variant more dangerous?
Scientists don’t think so for now. When asked on Saturday night if it was more lethal than the previous strain, Chief Medical Officer Professor Chris Whitty said ‘the answer seems to be ‘No’, as far as we can tell at the moment’.
Yesterday Dr Susan Hopkins, of Public Health England, said there was evidence of people with the new variant having higher viral loads inside them.
But she said this did not mean people would get more ill.
Ravi Gupta, professor of clinical microbiology at the University of Cambridge, said: ‘It’s unlikely it’ll make people sicker, but it could make it harder to control.’
If it does make the virus harder to control and hospitals become overrun, it could pose new challenges.
Are mutations unusual?
No. Seasonal influenza mutates every year. Variants of Sars-Cov-2 have also been observed in other countries, such as Spain.
However, one scientific paper suggests the number and combination of changes which have occurred in this new variant is potentially ‘unprecedented’.
Most mutations observed to date are thought to have happened more slowly. Also, most changes have no effect on how easily the virus spreads.
There are already about 4,000 mutations in the spike protein gene.
What has caused the mutation?
This is still being investigated. One theory is that growing natural immunity in the UK population, which makes it harder for the virus to spread, might have forced it to adapt.
Another theory is that it has developed in chronically ill patients who have fought the virus off over a long period of time, with it then being passed onto others.
Prof Paul Hunter, Professor in Medicine at the University of East Anglia, yesterday said it was ‘plausible’ and ‘highly likely’ this has happened.
However, he stressed it is impossible to prove at the moment.
What evidence is there to support the latter theory?
Some evidence supporting it was spotted when samples of virus were collected from a Cambridge patient. They had been treated with convalescent plasma – blood plasma containing antibodies from a recovered patient.
It is possible the virus mutated during that treatment, developing more resistance to the antibodies. This patient died of the infection, but it’s also possible the mutation has occurred elsewhere.
A paper co-authored by Andrew Rambaut, Professor of Molecular Evolution at the University of Edinburgh, states: ‘If antibody therapy is administered after many weeks of chronic infection, the virus population may be unusually large and genetically diverse…creating suitable circumstances for the rapid fixation of multiple virus genetic changes.’
Professor Hunter added: ‘Mutation in viruses are a random event and the longer someone is infected the more likely a random event is to occur.’
What do these mutations do?
Many occur in what’s called the ‘receptor binding domain’ of the virus’ spike protein. This helps the virus latch on to human cells and gain entry. The mutations make it easier for the virus to bind to human cells’ ACE2 receptors.
It is also possible the changes help the virus avoid human antibodies which would otherwise help fight off infection.
Who detected it?
It was discovered by the Covid-19 Genomics UK (COG-UK) consortium, which carries out random genetic sequencing of positive covid-19 samples.
It is a consortium of the UK’s four public health agencies, Wellcome Sanger Institute and 12 academic institutions.
How long has it been in the UK and where did it start?
As of mid-December, there were more than 1,000 cases in nearly 60 different local authorities, although the true number will be higher.
They have predominantly been found in the south east of England, in Kent and London. It may now account for 60 per cent of the capital’s cases.
But it has been detected elsewhere, including in Wales and Scotland.
The two earliest samples were collected on September 20 in Kent and another the next day in London.
Why was action to tackle it not taken sooner?
Because the potentially greater transmissibility was only discovered late last week by academics.
Has it been detected anywhere else in the world?
One aspect of the new variant, known as a N501Y mutation, was circulating in Australia between June and July, in America in July and in Brazil as far back as April, according to scientists.
It is therefore unclear what role, if any, travellers carrying the virus may have had.
Dr Julian Tang, a Virologist and expert in Respiratory science at the University of Leicester, said: ‘Whether or not these viruses were brought to the UK and Europe later by travellers or arose spontaneously in multiple locations around the world – in response to human host immune selection pressures – requires further investigation.’
Another change, known as the D614G variant, has previously been detected in western Europe and North America. But it is possible that the new variant evolved in the UK.
What can I do to avoid getting the new variant?
The same as always – keeping your distance from people, washing your hands regularly, wearing a mask and abiding by the tier restrictions in your area.
Yesterday Dr Chaand Nagpaul, chair of the British Medical Association, said: ‘The way in which you control the spread of the virus, including this new variant, is exactly the same. It is about continuing stringent measures. The same rules apply.’
Will the new variant reduce the effectiveness of vaccines?
More studies are needed.
Dr Susan Hopkins, of Public Health England, said that until these are carried out scientists cannot be certain whether – and by how much – the new variant reduces the effectiveness of developed vaccines.
She said: ‘The vaccine induces a strong, multiple response, immune response and therefore it is unlikely that this vaccine response is going to be completely gone.’ When mutations happen it is, in theory, possible the antibodies generated by vaccines can be evaded.
But vaccines produce a wide range of antibodies that simultaneously attack the virus from different angles, making it hard for it to evade all of them at once.
Vaccines could also be tweaked to make them more effective if the new mutation does prove to be more resistant to them.
So what are the scientists doing now?
Scientists will be growing the new strain in the lab to see how it responds. This includes looking at whether it produces the same antibody response, how it reacts to the vaccine, and modelling the new strain.
It could take up to two weeks for this process to be complete.