Mutations are important. It is not for nothing that they are the mainstay of a certain genre of horror film, Paul Nuki and Jordan Kelly-Linden write. They are what cause animal viruses to “spillover” to humans in the first place. And given the right conditions, or indeed just an unfortunate roll of the dice, they can make a nasty human disease a whole lot worse.
It is thought – but not proven – that the second wave of the 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic was more deadly because of a change in the H1N1 virus, for example. Mutations in the HIV virus, a pathogen that has killed over 30 million, also explain why treatments took so long to create and why a vaccine has proved elusive.
So what are we to make of VUI-202012/01, the simulationist sounding name given to the new variant of the coronavirus? How strong is the evidence for it being, in the Prime Minister’s words, “up to 70 per cent” more transmissible, and what does it really mean if it is?
One thing we can say with certainty is it has had a huge impact. It is the justification for the recent “cancelling” of Christmas and it has all but sealed off Britain from the rest of the world. At the time of writing, no fewer than 40 countries had closed their borders to us, severely limiting freedom of movement and severing supply chains.