5 issues to learn about virus unfold within the UK
A notice informing people of Tier 4 coronavirus restrictions illuminates a digital advertising screen on Oxford Street in London, England on December 21, 2020.
David Cliff | NurPhoto | Getty Images
The UK has identified a new variant of the coronavirus that appears to be spreading faster, raising new fears that the Covid-19 pandemic could accelerate even if governments start giving the first vaccine shots.
Scientists and experts in infectious diseases are still putting together what they know about the new strain SARS-CoV-2 VUI 202012/01, which, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, represents the first variant examined in December 2020. It has not yet been discovered in the US, but the CDC said it could already be spread across the country unnoticed.
While the virus appears to be easier to transmit, there is “no evidence” that the new variant makes people sick or increases the risk of death, the CDC said Tuesday. The new coronavirus “mutates regularly,” the CDC found, but the vast majority of the mutations are insignificant.
More than 40 countries, not including the US, have since suspended transport connections with the UK after the new variant of the coronavirus was found. France activated the 48-hour border closure on Monday and 1,500 trucks were stuck in Kent on Tuesday morning that couldn’t leave the UK, UK Home Secretary Priti Patel said Tuesday.
Here’s what you need to know:
1.) How many cases were found?
The World Health Organization said the mutation was found in 1,108 cases on December 13 in the UK. However, this is likely to be an undercount, as scientists need to do additional testing to confirm which strain of virus a patient is infected with, including sequencing the genetic code.
The WHO said the variant was traced back to Kent in southeast England, where it was found on Sept. 20 based on retrospective analysis.
It wasn’t until October that the variant began to spread rapidly across the region, the WHO said, adding that cases continued to increase at an unexpected pace through November, leading to an investigation and discovery of the mutation earlier this month. Between October 5 and December 13, it was found that over 50% of the virus samples sequenced from south east England were the variant strain.
2.) How contagious is it?
The UK has said the variant could be up to 70% more transmissible than the original strain of the virus.
Based on early data from the UK, the new strain “could potentially be more rapidly transmissible than other circulating strains,” said the CDC.
Maria Van Kerkhove, WHO director of emerging diseases and zoonosis, said Monday that British officials estimate the mutation increased the virus’ reproductive rate from 1.1 to 1.5. This means that each person infected with the variant is estimated to infect another 1.5 people.
Dr. Mike Ryan, executive director of the WHO health program, said it was unclear whether the increase in the spread in the UK was due to the mutation or human behavior.
“We saw an estimate of a small increase in the number of reproductions in the UK,” he said, which means the virus is spreading faster, which could mean it is more contagious or easier to spread in colder months. It could also mean people are becoming careless when it comes to following public health protocols. “It remains to be seen how much of this is due to the specific genetic change in the new variant. I suspect some.”
3.) How are you tracking it?
Officials in the UK are conducting epidemiological and virological studies to see if the variant is more contagious, if it makes people sick, if it can re-infect people who previously had Covid-19, and what type of antibody the new variant will respond to prompts .
The UK is also conducting genomic surveillance to understand the extent of the spread of the new variant across the country. The UK has also put affected areas under Tier 4 restrictions, the country’s toughest Covid restrictions.
In the United States, “viruses were only sequenced from around 51,000 of the 17 million US cases,” so the new strain may no longer be considered, according to the CDC.
The CDC started a new program in November, the National SARS-CoV-2 Strain Surveilence Program, to sequence additional virus samples. It is scheduled to be fully up and running in January, with each US state sending at least 10 samples to the CDC every other week for sequencing and further testing.
4.) What does this mean for vaccines?
According to the WHO, laboratory studies are currently ongoing to determine whether the new virus has different biological properties or could alter the effectiveness of the vaccine. The mutations involve changes in the spike protein that the virus uses to infect human cells.
Both Pfizer’s and Moderna’s vaccines, approved for use in the United States, use messenger RNA or mRNA technology. It’s a new approach to vaccines that uses genetic material – in this case a harmless piece of spike protein – to trigger an immune response against the virus.
Ugur Sahin, CEO of BioNTech, said Tuesday that he was confident that the company’s coronavirus vaccine with Pfizer would work against the new strain, but added that more studies are needed to be completely safe.
The coronavirus vaccine zone of President Donald Trump, Dr. Moncef Slaoui also said he expected Pfizer and Moderna’s Covid-19 shots to be effective against the new mutation.
Both vaccines induce an immune response against multiple structures around the spike protein, the multifunctional mechanism that allows the virus to invade the host, Slaoui, scientific advisor to Operation Warp Speed, told reporters Monday during a press conference. The likelihood that a set of mutations will completely change these structures “is extremely small,” he added.
5.) Is it coming to the USA?
The CDC announced on Tuesday that the new strain could already be in circulation in the United States without notice.
“Ongoing travel between the United Kingdom and the United States, as well as the high prevalence of this variant in current infections in the United Kingdom, increases the likelihood of imports,” said a CDC statement. “Given the low proportion of US infections sequenced, the variant could already be in the US without being discovered.”
– The Associated Press contributed to this report.