‘Has everyone in Kent gone to an illegal rave?’: on the variant trail with the Covid detectives

At the end of last year, a crack team of British scientists discovered a new coronavirus strain that would spread across the world. As new variants emerge, can they keep them at bay?

In late November last year, the people of Swale in Kent were being lambasted for disobedience. They were being Covid-shamed. The district, home to a large number of apple orchards, as well as the historic towns of Faversham and Sittingbourne, had the highest infection rates in the country. Close behind was nearby Thanet, the two areas totalling a little less than 500 sq km. The rules on wearing masks and social distancing were being “wilfully disregarded”, said Swale council leader Roger Truelove at an emergency meeting. Afterwards he told reporters: “We do get reports of crowding in supermarkets, and so we will be writing to supermarkets.” The council planned to “supercharge the messaging” that people should follow the rules. But they were not to know – how could they? – that the coronavirus had played a particularly nasty trick on their coastal borough.

At least two months before anybody spotted that the UK had a problem, a new variant of the virus had emerged without any warning. The hunt for what would later be dubbed the Kent variant took over the lives of some of the UK’s leading scientists for many urgent weeks, leading to the cancellation of Christmas and the UK’s third lockdown. The variant spread so fast, it now accounts for most of the Covid cases in the UK.

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