Covid map shows how mutant variants are spreading across UK

A map of the UK tracking the fast-evolving coronavirus ‘family tree’ shows how mutations are spreading across the country.

The multi-coloured charts show the myriad branches of Covid-19 variants as they evolve within people infected and spawn genetic offspring.

The graphs include the ‘mutant’ Covid type – thought to be up to 70% more infectious – which itself is emerging from a huge cluster.

Labelled ‘descendants’, each new variant is shown within the graph as Covid-19 evolves along a timeline that is constantly being updated.

The new UK variant, known as VUI–202012/01 or lineage B.1.1.7, has been given a lime green colour and is listed along with the lab that submitted it, the Wellcome Sanger Institute for the Covid-19 Genomics UK Consortium.

The country of origin and exposure is listed as ‘UK’ and the host as ‘human’.

The dominant SARS-CoV-2 types have been shown in pie charts roughly grouped by UK regions, as displayed in the map below, which is a snapshot where the new mutant strain is shown emerging in lime green.

The charts only show the branches leading up to the latest sub-type and are part of a much larger picture that dates back to the beginning of the year.

Disruption caused by the variant has included countries imposing traveling restrictions with the UK, reports of rising hospital admissions and the prospect of a third national lockdown.

However, it is only one of thousands of sequences – the genetic material of each virus and its variants – that are being tracked by Nextstrain, an open-source analysis website run by researchers at universities across Europe.

Covering England, Scotland and Wales, each variant is listed along with its offshoots, creating a vast ‘family tree’ with numerous sub-branches.

Nextstrain researcher Dr Emma Hodcroft, a molecular epidemiologist, told ‘The virus mutates all the time. It’s a normal part of virus life and a lot of these mutations don’t do anything at all.

‘We use sequences to make these family trees essentially to show the relationships but we are always on the lookout for signs to show that something has changed.’

The graph is based on 3,000 sequences tracked by the project, a fraction of the more than 100,000 that have been gathered in the UK to date, a figure which points to the forensic work being conducted on domestic soil as much as the prevalence of coronavirus.

An earlier chart, below, shows the main variants that were prevalent in the UK before the new type began to spread widely in September.

These sequences have also been put into large groups to see how they are expanding and date back to European outbreaks over the year, including one branch labelled EU1 in lime green at the top, a Spanish variant that spread over the summer and became the dominant type in the UK.

Dr Hodcroft, who is based at the University of Berne in Switzerland, said it was still early days for the mutant variant’s place in the graph, which might show the scale of the challenge ahead.

‘The data we have is new so we have to keep that in mind,’ she said.

‘However having said that, the data that UK scientists have presented is leading in the direction that there might be a real increase in transmissibility. How that happens, or what’s changed, scientists are still investigating.

‘There are a few mutations in this cluster but of course we don’t know what all of those mean immediately, that’s something that scientists are still working on.’

Identified in Kent on September 20, the variant was discovered as a result of genome sequencing, which deciphers an organism’s DNA to better understand its structure.

‘It’s important to have a picture of other variants that might be circulating and new variants that emerge.

‘We can see when a new variant starts spreading by seeing if there’s a lot of dots clustered together or not.

‘It’s all enabled by sequencing and I hope this brings attention to the importance of having a co-ordinated approach so we can all keep an eye on the variants that are out there.’

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