The United Kingdom is dealing with a new crisis amid the ongoing pandemic. Public health officials have discovered a new variant of the coronavirus, which has put the entire continent of Europe on high alert. While scientists are still studying the variant, it could be as much as 70% more transmissible than the novel coronavirus. However, there doesn’t seem to be an increased risk of serious illness from it.
European nations are shutting down travel to and from the U.K. in hopes of sealing off the new variant, so it doesn’t spread to other parts of the world. As frightening as this new development may sound, it’s important to remember that viruses often mutate over time.
So, how worried should we be over this new mutation?
Infections Swell in Southeast England
The new variant was discovered in parts of London and southeast England as the number of new cases started to swell. Researchers used genetic evidence to backtrack the spread of the new variant; tracking it is easy because it comes with a unique genetic fingerprint.
They now believe it first popped up in the U.K. back in September. It spread undetected over the next two months until scientists were finally able to identify it. The mutation is being referred to as “VUI-202012/01” for the first “Variant Under Investigation” in the U.K. in December 2020.
While the new variant appears to be more infectious, scientists believe the recent surge in infections could have something to do with human behavior as well. Many people have been shopping for the holidays throughout London and the surrounding area, which could lead to superspreader events.
As Julian Tang, clinical virologist at the University of Leicester, told the Science Media Centre, “A higher genomic growth rate in the samples sequenced may not necessarily mean higher transmissibility, e.g., if there was a rave of several thousand people where this variant was introduced and infected many people mostly in that rave, this may seem very high compared to a lower background of non-variant virus.”
However, the U.K.’s New and Emerging Respiratory Virus Threats Advisory Group says it has “moderate confidence” that this new variant “demonstrates a substantial increase in transmissibility compared to other variants.”
Chris Whitty, England’s chief medical officer, says the mutation “contains 23 different changes,” which is more than what we normally see in mutated viruses. He believes the new variant is responsible for 60% of new infections in London, which have nearly doubled in the last week alone.
- So, why does the mutation spread faster than the normal coronavirus?
Scientists believe it may have something to do with the spike protein, which the virus uses to attach itself to host cells in the body.
- Is it more dangerous?
So far, the new variant doesn’t seem to increase the chances of serious illness. It’s common for viruses to mutate over time, but it usually doesn’t make them more dangerous.
Martin Hibberd, professor of emerging infectious disease at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, says, “As viruses are transmitted, those that allow for increased virological ‘success’ can be selected for, which changes the properties of the virus over time. This typically leads to more transmission and less virulence.”
- What about the vaccine?
There’s no reason to believe that the mutation will affect the vaccination process.
Tang went on to say, “We are not seeing any increased virulence (clinical severity) or any gross changes in the [spike protein] that will reduce vaccine effectiveness — so far.”
Scientists say it takes years for viruses to evolve to the point where vaccines are no longer effective, not months. “No one should worry that there is going to be a single catastrophic mutation that suddenly renders all immunity and antibodies useless,” says Dr. Jesse Bloom, an evolutionary biologist at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle.
What Does This Mean for the Rest of the World?
Countries around the world are still being walloped by the novel coronavirus, so they are doing everything they can to protect themselves from the new strain.
As soon as news of the mutation broke over the weekend, many countries started banning travel to and from the U.K., further isolating the country after a long, painful year. Residents could be seen piling on to crowded trains with cars backed up for miles as people tried to make it to their destinations before the new lockdowns went into effect. The country plans on stationing more police officers in train stations to make sure people are only traveling for essentials.
The new strain has also been detected in Denmark, the Netherlands, and Australia, according to the World Health Organization. A similar but separate strain of the virus has also been detected in South Africa, where officials say it continues to spread quickly along the coastal region.
The U.S. has banned travel to and from the U.K. and other European countries since the start of the pandemic back in March. Officials are trying to minimize the chances of the mutation making an appearance stateside. The U.S. healthcare system is already overwhelmed, and some fear the new mutation would lead to another surge in cases, which could push some hospitals and communities to their breaking point.