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What do we know about the British variant?

Text updated on 2021-01-14

Preliminary studies suggest that the VoC 202012/01 variant, also called B1.1.7 or the British variant, may be more contagious than the non-mutated form. Pending confirmation or not of these results, the precautionary principle applies! You must be doubly careful to avoid any risk of transmission: wear a well-adjusted mask, wash your hands, ventilate living areas, and avoid crowds.

Variant VoC 202012/01 (Variant of Concern 202012/01) or lineage B.1.1.7 contains 17 non-synonymous mutations (i.e., mutations that affect the proteins of the virus), 8 of which modify the Spike protein. Such a number and combination of mutations is unusual. One such mutation is N501Y, which is also found in the variant identified in South Africa in December 2020 (See question, Which variants of the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus have attracted attention?) and may increase the affinity of the Spike protein for the ACE2 receptor. This variant contains another mutation, P681H, which is located at a particular site within the Spike protein at the furin cleavage site. This particular site facilitates fusion between the virus membrane and the cell membrane. This furin cleavage site, which does not exist in other coronaviruses close to SARS-CoV-2, promotes entry of the coronavirus into respiratory epithelial cells. This variant also has a deletion, 69-70del, which has already been described on the Cluster 5 variant (See question, Which variants of the coronavirus SARS-CoV-2 have attracted attention?) and which could allow the coronavirus to escape the immune system. These mutations have already been described on other variants of SARS-CoV-2 but this is the only one that combines all of them.

What are the peculiarities of this British variant?

This variant was detected in September 2020 in Kent in the United Kingdom and then rapidly spread to the south of the United Kingdom. In London, the variant was detected in 28% of infections in November 2020, and in 60% in January 2021. In January 2021, it was detected in several European countries, the United States and Chile. To date, there is no indication that this variant has any effect on the severity of the disease, either in terms of mortality or the severity of cases developed by infected persons. In the United Kingdom, the presence of this variant is correlated with an increase in the rate of infection.

Preliminary results indicate that this variant could have a substantial transmission advantage, with a reproduction rate between 0.4 and 0.7 higher than the non-mutated coronavirus. To determine whether or not the new variant is the cause of the increased infection rate described in England, studies are currently underway.

How did variant B1.1.7 come about?

A large number of mutations separate the British variant from other circulating forms of the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus. This suggests that this variant appeared in an immunocompromised patient (i.e., a person with a weaker than average immune system) who was infected with the coronavirus for several months. A weakened immune system allows the virus to multiply more and accumulate more mutations. Indeed, high rates of mutation accumulation over short periods of time have been observed in immunocompromised or immunocompromised patients.

Since the British variant appeared, it has been accumulating mutations at a rate comparable to other forms of the virus, with about 1-2 new mutations per month. The speed of evolution of the coronavirus has therefore not changed between this variant and the previous ones. 

What to do about the British variant?

To avoid catching the coronavirus, slow down the spread of COVID-19, and limit the transmission of variants that may be more transmissible, it is very important for everyone to be extremely vigilant. A well-fitting, well-filtering mask should be worn on the face (see question Why put on a mask? and the question Surgical mask or fabric mask: which to choose?). Safety distances must be respected, hands must be washed regularly, the premises must be ventilated as often as possible with outside air, and of course crowds must be avoided.

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In this report, researchers compared 1,769 people infected with the VoC 202012/01 variant with 1,769 people infected with other forms of SARS-CoV-2. Patients in the two groups were matched by age and sex. The results show that the number of people hospitalized was not significantly different in the two groups (varying: 0.9% of patients versus 1.5% for the non-mutated form). Mortality at 28 days is not significantly different in the two groups (0.89% for the variant versus 0.73% for the non-mutated form). The reinfection rate (a positive test more than 90 days after the first infection) is not significantly different in the two groups: 2 cases for the variant versus 3 for the non-mutated form.

Investigation of novel SARS-CoV-2 variant: Variant of Concern 202012/01. Technical briefing document on novel SARS-CoV-2 variant. Published 21 December 2020

In this report, the authors studied the secondary rate of infection using data routinely collected by health institutions in England. 956,519 contact cases were followed up between November 30, 2020 and December 20, 2020. Of these contact cases 121,072 (12.7%) were infected with SARS-CoV-2. The infection rate of the contact cases is about 15% when the index case (the patient who infected the contact case) was a carrier of the variant form of VoC 202012/01 and about 11% when the index case did not carry the variant.

Investigation of novel SARS-CoV-2 variant: 202012/01. Technical briefing 3. 28 December 2020.

Modelling study on the expansion of the 202012/01 VoC variant, based on data routinely collected in England between October and December 2020 in patients with COVID-19. Based on data acquired from November 8 to December 19, 2020, the results show that among 0-19 year olds, the form of the 202012/01 VoC variant appears to be more present than the non-mutated form and among 60-79 year olds, the opposite is true: the non-mutated form appears to be more present. Based on data acquired between October 24 and December 12, 2020, the authors estimate that the absolute advantage of the reproduction rate of the variant over the non-mutated form varies from 0.36 to 0.68.

Volz, E., Mishra, S., Chand, M., Barrett, J. C., Johnson, R., Geidelberg, L., ... & Ferguson, N. M. Transmission of SARS-CoV-2 Lineage B. 1.1. 7 in England: Insights from linking epidemiological and genetic data. medRxiv, 2020-12.

Modelling study on data from patients with COVID-19 in the London area, East and South East England, which estimates that the VoC 202012/01 variant spreads more rapidly in South East England than pre-existing forms without the mutation and that the VoC 202012/01 variant is 56% (95% range: 50% to 74%) more transmissible than the non-mutated form of SARS-CoV-2 .

Davies, N. G., Barnard, R. C., Jarvis, C. I., Kucharski, A. J., Munday, J., Pearson, C. A., ... & CMMID COVID-19 Working Group. (2020). Estimated transmissibility and severity of novel SARS-CoV-2 Variant of Concern 202012/01 in England. medRxiv.

The British variant could come from immunocompromised patients who have been infected with coronavirus for several months.

Rambaut, A., Loman, N., Pybus, O., Barclay, W., Barrett, J., Carabelli, A., ... & Volz, E. (2020). Preliminary genomic characterisation of an emergent SARS-CoV-2 lineage in the UK defined by a novel set of spike mutations. Genom. Epidemiol.

Further reading

What is a mutation for the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus?

What is a variant of the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus?

How does a variant of the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus spread?

Which variants of the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus have attracted attention?

Do the variants call into question the efficacy of the vaccines?