Update: HPI information on the new SARS-CoV-2 variants

Thursday, 14. January 2021

January 14, 2021:

Epidemiological investigations suggest that the variant VOC-202012/01 (also referred to as B.1.1.7 or 501Y.v1), which originally emerged in southeastern England, has a higher transmissibility by about factor 1.5. This assumption is supported by the observation that the variant has now spread to other parts of the UK, as well as to Ireland and Denmark.

A second variant, designated 501Y.v2, has spread at high speed in South Africa. This is the lineage B.1.351, which is clearly different from the lineage of the British variant (B.1.1.7). Despite the different lineages, some mutations (especially the one with the designation 501Y) are found in both variants. In addition, both variants have a number of other mutations. It is suspected that the respective combination of these mutations may be responsible for the rapid spread of the variants. However, experimental confirmation of this assumption is still pending.

Both the British and the South African variants have now been detected several times in Germany. So far, however, these cases have exclusively occurred in travelers returning to Germany or in their direct contacts. We therefore do not believe that the variants are already widespread in Germany or that they are responsible for the persistently high number of cases.

According to current knowledge, infection with the new variants is not associated with more severe disease progression. Likewise, it is not expected that the available vaccines will lose their efficacy. However, increased transmissibility could lead to a significant increase in the number of cases. Therefore, until the transmissibility of the new variants is finally clarified, the spread in Germany must be prevented or delayed if possible. HPI thus strongly supports the appeal for compliance with the current contact restrictions and Corona regulations.

Information on the occurrence of the variants in Hamburg:

In collaboration with the University Medical Center Hamburg-Eppendorf (UKE) and the Hamburg health authorities, HPI routinely performs SARS-CoV-2 genome testing. So far, variant 501.v2 has been detected in a single case. This was a traveler returning from South Africa. In the course of the examination of several hundred samples from the general population, we have so far been unable to detect either the British or the South African variant.  

December 22, 2020:

According to recent information from Public Health England, a reproduction rate was calculated for the new variant that appears to be higher than other variants by a factor of 0.74 (i.e., about 70%). The data basis for the calculation was the increase in positive cases with the new variant over the last few months.

It is important to note that this number describes the increase, but does not explain it.

In the media, the increased rate of spread has often been equated with an increased 70% infectivity. Against the background of the current data situation, this assumption is not valid, since other factors (e.g. superspreading events) can also lead to a strong increase in the spread of individual variants even though these do not exhibit characteristics that significantly influence infectivity.

While increased attention to the new variant is undoubtedly warranted given the relatively high number of mutations, further investigation is needed before increased infectivity can actually be assumed.

Link to the original report:

December 20, 2020:

To our current knowledge, the SARS-CoV-2 lineage currently in focus due to its spread in the United Kingdom, named B.1.1.7, has not yet occurred in Hamburg.

Whether this variant is actually a strain with increased infection potential is still largely unclear. According to the information currently available, we believe that it may also be a combination of mutations that occurred by chance in the course of the exponential spread of the pathogen.

Nevertheless, the spread of lineage B.1.1.7 calls for increased attention. Since the beginning of the pandemic, HPI, together with the University Medical Center Hamburg-Eppendorf (UKE), has been conducting random sample surveillance of SARS-CoV-2 strains occurring in Hamburg and, as part of these activities, will continuously monitor the occurrence of lineage B.1.1.7, but also of other strains with possibly increased infection potential. 

Further information on the subject:

Podcast with Prof. Adam Grundhoff:


Contact HPI:

Prof. Adam Grundhoff (Head RU Virus Genomics & TP NGS)

Mail: adam.grundhoff(at)

Tel.: 040/48051-275