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New coronavirus variant discovered in Finland

Discovery of new variants of the virus is just "a matter of time", experts say.

Jukka Hurme.
The mutation of the coronavirus was discovered by researchers at Helsinki-based Vita Laboratories. Image: Johannes Niva / Yle

Researchers in southern Finland have discovered a new, "unique" variant of the coronavirus.

Helsinki-based Vita Laboratories said the variant, dubbed Fin-796H, displayed some mutations previously discovered in the British and South African variants of the virus but in a combination it called "unique".

"The variant was discovered in a patient last week, so details about the infectivity and potential resistance of this strain to vaccines are not yet known," said Vita Laboratories' researcher Taru Meri.

It is unlikely that the variant emerged in Finland due to relatively low rates of coronavirus infection in the country, Meri said.

Ilkka Julkunen, Professor of Virology at the University of Turku, told Yle that based on the information available, the emergence of the variant was not 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," he said.

Petri Auvinen, research director of the University of Helsinki's Institute of Biotechnology, said finding new variants of the coronavirus was simply "a matter of time."

"However, the newly-discovered variant differs from expectations in that it does not genetically resemble any other known variant," he said.

PCR tests may not be effective, experts warn

Vita Laboratories considers the discovery of the new variant significant as it may not show up in PCR tests for coronavirus that search for particular genetic sequences in the virus' RNA.

If the PCR test is only able to identify specific parts of that code, then a mutated virus may escape detection. Therefore, PCR tests often search for at least two different sections.

"The tests' inability to recognise it, meaning those mutations have occurred in the section on which the PCR test is based, is the most important information about this variant at the moment," clinical researcher Taru Meri said.

So far, 450 cases of coronavirus variants have been reported in Finland, according to Taneli Puumalainen, head of infectious disease control at THL. Of these, 422 were the British variant, 22 the South African variant and one case involved the Brazilian variant of the virus.

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