The UK government plunged millions of people into harsher restrictions this weekend, warning of a mutated coronavirus strain that appears to infect people more easily.
Multiple countries also moved quickly to block travel from the UK, expressing concern over the new strain.
The government said the new strain could increase the country’s R number by 0.4, and suggested that the strain is now behind 59% of new cases in eastern England and 62% of new cases in London.
Experts say the situation is worrying and needs to be closely monitored, but added that this strain doesn’t appear more deadly.
They also say that it’s likely the vaccines proven to work against the virus will still be effective against the new strain.
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The UK has warned that it discovered a new, potentially more transmissible strain of the novel coronavirus, prompting the government to put millions of people into a stricter lockdown for Christmas and a host of countries to block travel with the UK.
Matt Hancock, the UK’s health minister, warned that a new variant of the virus, which may be up to 70% more transmissible, is “getting out of control.”
UK Health Secretary Matt Hancock. Tolga Akmen – WPA Pool/Getty Images
UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson also announced on Saturday that around 16 million people would be put into a new, stricter lockdown across southeast England, including London.
Soon after, a host of other countries blocked travel from the UK, with some countries also deciding to ban freight, which could seriously harm the UK supply chain.
Viruses are typically expected to mutate, and the variants aren’t necessarily more harmful – they do not necessarily increase the risk to humans or threaten vaccines’ effectiveness.
A notice to customers at the almost-deserted International Departures hall at the Eurostar terminal at St. Pancras International station in London on December 21, 2020, after all services to Europe were cancelled. NIKLAS HALLE’N/AFP via Getty Images
With this latest development, experts are urging calm, cautioning that more evidence needs to be gathered to figure out exactly what’s going on, and what the new risks might be.
What we know
Hancock said that this strain – named B.1.1.7 – appears to be more transmissible than other mutations of the virus, noting that it appears to have spread much faster across parts of England.
Johnson also said that the new strain could increase the country’s R number by 0.4. R is the average number of people that one infected person can pass the virus to, and an increase of 0.4 could determine whether an outbreak is successfully contained or spreading rapidly.
The government’s figures suggest the new strain was behind 59% of new cases in the east of England and 62% of the new cases in London as of December 9 – compared to 28% in London three weeks earlier.
The World Health Organization said that the new variant has already been seen in the Netherlands, Denmark and Australia – meaning other countries’ efforts to seal off the UK may be of little benefit.
As Insider previously reported, the new variant includes a mutation in the spike protein of the virus, which is what the virus uses to invade our bodies’ cells. This means the virus might find it easier to infect us.
The new variant appears to have developed 23 mutations, UK health authorities said.
An illustration of the novel coronavirus. ReutersPrevious lockdowns were insufficient
According to Science magazine, scientists believe the new strain could have emerged in a patient who was infected for a long time, allowing the virus to mutate in their body.
Dr. Susan Hopkins, the head of Public Health England, said the strain was first found in a coronavirus patient in September, but that it didn’t cause alarm at the time because mutations of the virus were expected.
But then cases rose rapidly in some areas despite lockdown measures.
This graph shows how fast the cases were rising in the areas where the new strain is most prevalent, compared to the rest of the UK, as of December 19:
10 Downing Street/Twitter
Over the weekend Johnson said he had been confused as to why existing restrictions weren’t slowing the virus spread in Kent, a county in southeast England, where the new strain is thought to have been emerged.
“It’s not until yesterday, when we have seen this data on transmissibility that we really got the answer that explains it,” he said.
Experts are urging calm
Hancock said there wasn’t any evidence that the strain was more deadly or more resistant to vaccines, but it did seem to be “growing faster than the existing variants.”
Chris Whitty, England’s chief medical officer, said that the strain could be 70% more transmissible – a figure given by Dr. Erik Volz from Imperial College London, who said that the situation needed to be monitored but that “it is really too early to tell.”
A person is tested for the coronavirus in England. Getty
But many experts are urging caution.
Christian Drosten, a virologist at Charité University Hospital in Berlin, said the UK government should not have cited the 70% figure: “There are too many unknowns to say something like that.”
“The amount of evidence in the public domain is woefully inadequate to draw strong or firm opinions on whether the virus has truly increased transmission,” added Professor Jonathan Ball, a virologist at the University of Nottingham, according to the BBC.
Dr. Muge Cevik, a scientific advisor to the British government, noted that the 70% figure hasn’t been confirmed in lab experiments, and that the faster spread could be at least partially explained by people acting differently.
Alan McNally, a professor of genomics at the University of Birmingham, said in a statement to UK’s Science Media Centre that “it’s too early to be worried or not by this new variant.”
“It is important to keep a calm and rational perspective on the strain as this is normal virus evolution and we expect new variants to come and go and emerge over time,” he said.
UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson. Toby Melville – WPA Pool / Getty Images
But some experts say that taking big steps now is the right call, rather than waiting to take action when more information is available, in case the new strain does pose a new risk.
Professor Nick Loman, from the COVID-19 Genomics UK Consortium, told the BBC that “laboratory experiments are required, but do you want to wait weeks or months [to take action]? Probably not in these circumstances.”
It doesn’t seem more deadly
UK officials say that there is currently no evidence to suggest that the new variant is more deadly, though scientists in the UK and WHO are now studying it.
Wendy Barclay, head of the Department of Infectious Disease at Imperial College London, said earlier this month – before new data about transmission came out – that “there is no evidence that the newly reported variant results in a more severe disease.”
The BBC noted that there is no evidence to suggest that it’s more deadly – but that this needs to be studied.
But Professor Andrew Hayward, a professor of infectious-disease epidemiology at University College London and a member of the UK’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies, warned that if it has a greater ability to infect people, the virus is already more deadly.
“I think we already have enough information to know that this variant has the potential to cause a major further epidemic, worse than we had previously predicted,” he said, according to The Guardian.
All viruses mutate over time, and this isn’t the first discovered variant of this virus.
As the BBC noted, the virus strain now seen in most parts of the world isn’t the same as the one that was first detected in Wuhan, China.
Some experts say that more than 4,000 mutations of the novel coronavirus have already emerged, but the vast majority are insignificant in terms of how they affect humans, and how we can fight them.
Vaccines will likely still work
Patrick Vallance, the UK government’s chief scientific adviser, said on Saturday: “Our working assumption, from all of the scientists, is that the vaccine response should be adequate for this virus.”
Experts also said that this mutation is unlikely to hinder the effectiveness of vaccines that have been proven to work against the virus, but noted that more studies are needed.
A nurse waits to administer the first of two Pfizer/BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine jabs in Edinburgh, Scotland, on December 8, 2020. Andrew Milligan/Pool via Reuters
Many added that years of evolution would likely have to happen for the virus to reach a stage where vaccines aren’t effective.
Dr. Jesse Bloom, an evolutionary biologist at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle, told The New York Times: “No one should worry that there is going to be a single catastrophic mutation that suddenly renders all immunity and antibodies useless.”
“It is going to be a process that occurs over the time scale of multiple years and requires the accumulation of multiple viral mutations. It’s not going to be like an on-off switch,” he said.
Professor Ravi Gupta, a clinical microbiologist at the University of Cambridge, told the BBC that if the virus is allowed to keep spreading among people, new variants could bring it closer to the point where it has mutated too much for vaccines to work.
“If we let it add more mutations, then you start worrying.”
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