It has been a rough weekend in Britain, as on Saturday, Prime Minister Boris Johnson instituted the strictest coronavirus restrictions seen in the country since the initial lockdown in March. Holiday gatherings of more than one household were banned, and all non-essential shops closed throughout southeast England and Greater London. The cause for these measures is a new Covid-19 mutation that is spreading through the United Kingdom with an alarming speed, to the extent that Italy, France, Germany, and several other European countries placed a temporary travel ban on the UK.
While scientists don’t expect the virus strain to be resistant to the vaccines, they are still gathering information and learning more about this new mutation. Find out below what is currently known about this concerning development.
This specific variation of Covid-19 dubbed 'VUI – 202012/01' was first identified in the UK in mid-September according to the World Health Organization. Its mutations have occurred in the genetic material that controls the spike protein - this is the key coronaviruses use to penetrate host cells and cause infection. According to the UK’s chief scientific adviser Patrick Vallance, there are 23 changes in the virus’s genetic material, an unusually large number.
These mutations seem to help the new strain to spread more quickly, in fact, British officials estimated that 'VUI – 202012/01' is as much as 70 percent more transmissible. This number is based on modeling and has not yet been confirmed in lab experiments. There is no evidence to suggest the strain causes a more severe infection or leads to a higher fatality rate. However, faster transmission does mean more cases and more pressure on hospitals.
In general, it is not unusual for viruses to pick up small genetic changes and mutate as they move through a host population. “Viruses that encode their genome in RNA, such as SARS-CoV-2, HIV, and influenza, tend to pick up mutations quickly as they are copied inside their hosts because enzymes that copy RNA are prone to making errors,” explained Nature writer Ewen Callaway.
Scientists have been tracking minor changes in the genetic code of COVID-19 since the beginning of the pandemic. At least 1.000 variants have been detected so far, but the changes in the spike protein make the specific strain found in southeast England the first to make the novel coronavirus more infectious.
According to Vallance, this new strain will not affect the vaccination process that has already begun earlier this month, as the strain is not resistant to the vaccine. “Our working assumption from all the scientists is that the vaccine response should be adequate for this virus,” he said in a briefing on Sunday.
All three leading vaccines develop an immune response against the existing spike. Vaccines train the immune system to attack several different parts of the virus, so even though part of the virus has mutated, the vaccines should still be effective. However, microbiologists who spoke with NBC News shared concerns that although that is true for the time being, there is a risk of the virus eventually growing to be vaccine-resistant.
It isn’t clear whether the strain emerged in a patient in the UK or has been imported from a country with a lower ability to monitor the coronavirus. It can be found across the UK, but it is heavily concentrated in London, the South East, and eastern England. Several cases have been detected in Denmark, Australia, and the Netherlands, probably coming from the UK.
A similar strain has emerged in South Africa. Although it shares up to 90 percent of the mutations found in the UK variant, evidence suggests that the two variations have emerged separately, according to molecular epidemiologist Emma Hodcroft.
As we mentioned, most European countries have suspended air travel from the United Kingdom to try and contain the spread of the new strain. The United States had already blocked travel for most non-US citizens who had recently been to the UK. According to a report from the Telegraph, president Trump was considering lifting that ban - but the lockdown declared this Saturday is likely to change that decision.
Hopefully, this unpleasant development can be contained quickly and effectively. We wish you all a safe holiday season.
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