The new variant has been located in southeastern England, Matt Hancock revealed on Monday, saying that scientists at Porton Down, the country’s secretive military and public health research facility, had been analysing the new form of the virus.
“Initial analysis suggests that this variant is growing faster than the existing variants,” Hancock told MPs in the House of Commons.
He added that cases of the new variant had been identified in nearly 60 different local authority areas and said that 1,000 cases have been recorded, predominantly in the “South of England.”
Speaking at a press conference later on Monday, England’s Chief Medical Officer Chris Whitty said there was no evidence of COVID-19 symptoms being worse or different with the new variant.
Hancock linked the variant to the faster spread of the virus in the south of England, although he noted that scientists couldn’t pinpoint if it was behind the recent surge of cases in London.
The capital will move into Tier 3, the highest level of coronavirus restrictions from Wednesday at 12:01am local time, forcing restaurants and bars to close.
Schools have also been advised to shut, despite the measures not requiring them to, due to concerns about the spread of the virus among lower age groups.
“I must stress at this point there is currently nothing to suggest that this variant is more likely to cause serious disease,” Hancock added.
“And the latest clinical advice is that it’s highly unlikely this mutation would fail to respond to a vaccine.”
The World Health Organization (WHO) has been informed of the new variant and Public Health England researchers are studying the strain.
The agency’s Dr Michael Ryan confirmed on Monday that the WHO is “aware of this variant,” explaining that the mutations of viruses are “quite common.”
His WHO colleague, Dr Maria Van Kerkhove, added that the variant identified by Hancock is the ‘N501Y’ mutation, which scientists have been studying since the early months of the pandemic.
“It’s being monitored already by our virus evolution working group, it’s come up in the context of a mink variant identified elsewhere,” she said.
Coronavirus mutations in mink have been reported in countries including the Netherlands, the US and Denmark, with the Danish government ordering the cull of 17 million animals in November.