Scientists fear that the new muntant strain of coronavius could more easily infect children after newly found data suggested that it was better able to spread amongst youngsters than other strains
Experts are urgently researching the new strain of the virus to understand better its effects on patients and vaccines, reports the Independent.
Professor Neil Ferguson, from Imperial College London told journalists on Monday that data on infections across the southeast showed the new variant of the virus had a statistically significant higher rate of infection among children than other strains.
He said, "There is a hint that it is has a higher propensity to infect children. That may perhaps explain some of the differences but we haven't established any sort of causality on that but we can see that in the data."
"During the lockdown in England, we saw a general shift in the age distribution of the virus towards children, and that was true in the variant and non-variant and that is what we would expect, given that we had locked down which reduced adult contacts but schools were still open. But what we've seen over the course of a five or six week period is consistently the proportion of pillar two cases for the variant in under 15s was statistically significantly higher than the non-variant virus.
"We are still investigating the significance of that. This is a hypothesis at the moment which has not been proven but if it were true, then this might explain a significant proportion, maybe even the majority, of the tramsmission increase seen but a lot more work needs to be done to actually explore this in more detail."
Professor Wendy Barclay, a member of the government's New and Emerging Respiratory Virus Threats Advisory Group, added: "We're not saying that this is a virus which specifically targets children or is any more specific in its ability to infect children, but we know that Covid was not as efficient in affecting children as it was in adults."
She said one idea was that the new strain was better able to connect with human cells to infect them meaning that where the virus had previously struggled to infect children they were now "on a more level playing field" with adults in terms of infection, reports the Independent.
Peter Horby, chair of NERVTAG and professor of emerging infectious diseases at the University of Oxford, said that since the initial analysis of data, which prompted the government to cancel a planned five day lifting of restrictions over Christmas, scientists were now more confident about the risks from the new mutant strain.
He said: "This afternoon (Monday) more than a dozen scientists met again with some new faces who weren't at the Friday meeting. We went through all the data again and additional analysis, both on bigger data sets and using different methods. The conclusion this afternoon is that we now have higher confidence that this variant does have a transmission advantage over other virus variants currently in the UK."
Scientists are scrambling to study the new variant to determine if planned vaccines will still be effective, reports the Independent.
Asked how confident she was that vaccines would be effective Prof Barclay said: "We're not completely confident at the moment and it's very important that we carry out some analysis of that very quickly. The most direct way to do that fast is to look at the way that antibodies that have been raised in vaccine recipients can recognise this virus and the altered spike protein that it presents. That work is underway in several laboratoires around the UK at the moment, and will reveal whether or not there's a difference."
She added that she felt it was unlikely that the one major alteration to the virus spike protein would be enough to defeat the vaccines because the immune system generates antibodies that attack viruses from multiple angles but she added: "There is a possibility that the ability of the antibodies to see the virus is compromised to some extent, and that's what we need to check out."