The head of England’s Test and Trace programme, Dido Harding, faced questions from MPs on Wednesday at the Science and Technology Committee.
Defending the scheme’s performance, Baroness Harding said that since September:
“We’ve seen the virus mutate, we’ve seen the new variant emerge, which was something that none of us had, were able to predict”
So is she right?
On 5 May 2020, researchers from the Sheffield Genomics Group published a scientific paper called: “Spike mutation pipeline reveals the emergence of a more transmissible form of SARS-CoV-2” (the technical name for coronavirus).
They identified 13 mutations in the “spike protein”, which is the part of the virus that binds to human body cells, and said their findings had “important implications” for the spread of the disease.
Another study, published on 2 July, looked at a specific mutation in the virus and suggested this may have made it more infectious.
Scientists at Michigan State University published a study in the Journal of Molecular Biology on 23 July that said “most likely future mutations will make SARS-CoV-2 more infectious”.
The journal Nature ran an article on 8 September 2020 warning: “Different SARS-CoV-2 strains haven’t yet had a major impact on the course of the pandemic, but they might in future.”
It might be true that no-one predicted the precise mutations of the variant we’re currently fighting in the UK. But there has been evidence since spring 2020 that mutations were happening and experts warned even then that one or more variants could emerge that would significantly alter the course of the pandemic.
The Department of Health and Social Care was contacted for comment.