UK tests house-to-house in hunt for new coronavirus variant

The United Kingdom has begun house-by-house coronavirus testing in some communities as authorities try to snuff out a new variant of the virus before it spreads widely and undermines a nationwide vaccination program.

Authorities want to reach the 80,000 residents of eight areas where the variant, first identified in South Africa, is known to be spreading because a handful of cases have been detected among people who have had no contact with the country or anyone who traveled there.

Officials are dispatching home testing kits and mobile testing units in an effort to reach every resident of those communities. It is “critical” for everyone in these areas to stay at home unless travel is absolutely essential, Health Secretary Matt Hancock says.

“Our mission must be to stop its spread altogether and break those chains of transmission,” Hancock tells the House of Commons on Tuesday.

Public health officials are concerned about the variant first identified in South Africa because it contains a mutation of the virus’ characteristic spike protein that existing vaccines target. The mutation may mean the vaccines offer less protection against the variant.

As the door-to-door testing drive got underway, Public Health England also says scientists had discovered the same spike protein mutation in 11 cases involving another variant that is now the most prevalent form of the virus in England. The mutation had not previously been detected in the so-called Kent variant, named for the English county where it was first identified.

Dr. Julian Tang, a clinical virologist at the University of Leicester, says recent discovery of the spike protein mutation in the Kent variant was a “worrying development, though not entirely unexpected.”

“Closing borders/restricting travel may help a little with this, but there is now probably already a sufficient critical mass of virus-infected people within the endemic UK population to allow this natural selection/evolution to proceed — as this report suggests — so we really need to stick to the COVID-19 lockdown restrictions as much as possible,” Tang says in a written statement.

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