New ‘Finnish’ Covid strain discovered may not show up in tests - and could be spreading undetected

Friday, 19th February 2021, 10:23 am
Updated Friday, 19th February 2021, 10:23 am
The new variant is different from the previously found mutations in South Africa and the UK (Photo: Shutterstock)

A new mutant strain of Covid-19 has been discovered in Finland that is going undetected by tests, which could be fuelling the spread of the disease.

Researchers have said the variant, dubbed Fin-796H, is different from the previously found mutations in South Africa and the UK.

Difficult to detect

The discovery was made by Helsinki-based Vita Laboratories who say it is unlikely the variant originally emerged in Finland, given the country’s low rate of coronavirus infection, which has only had just over 51,500 since the pandemic began.

In a statement, the lab said: “Vita Laboratoriot Oy and the Institute of Biotechnology at the University of Helsinki have detected a previously unknown variant of the coronavirus in a sample from southern Finland.

“Mutations in this variant make it difficult to detect in at least one of the WHO-recommended PCR tests.

“The discovery could have a significant impact on determining the spread of the disease.”

Unlike the South African and UK strains, the lab said that the Finnish variant’s “inheritance has the same features as the previously widespread variants in the world, but it does not appear to belong to the same lineage of any of the previously known variants.”

Researchers have not yet confirmed if the new strain is more easily transmitted, or if it would affect immunity.

Ilkka Julkunen, Professor of Virology at the University of Turku, told local paper Yle that the emergence of the variant was not yet a major concern.

"I would not be hugely worried yet, because we do not have clear information that this new strain would be more easily transmitted or that it would affect the immune protection brought about by already having had the virus or having received a vaccination.”

New Covid variant in UK

While the Finnish Covid strain has not yet been detected in the UK, health bosses have recently discovered another new variant with 38 cases already confirmed in the country.

Thirty-six of the cases of the new strain, dubbed B.1.525, are spread across England, and a further two cases are in Wales.

Similar to the strains found in South Africa and Brazil, B.1.525 carries a mutation that can make Covid-19 vaccines less effective.

The strain has been categorised as a “variant under investigation” following a risk assessment, but Public Health England has said surge testing will not be carried out to detect more cases as it is not seen as a “variant of concern”.

However, further surge testing is to be introduced in another part of the UK to track the South African variant of Covid-19, after the mutation has now been found in Leeds.

The Department of Health announced on Thursday (18 February) that additional testing and genomic sequencing will be rolled out to people in the LS8 postcode area of Leeds, with residents being “strongly encouraged” to take a test regardless of whether they have symptoms.

Leeds is the latest part of England to have targeted testing set up, after the department set up testing regimes in parts of Norfolk, Southampton and Woking in Surrey earlier this week.

Efforts in Manchester are also being expanded to track down the more transmissible Kent Covid-19 variant following a deployment of testing teams last week.