A new variant of the pandemic SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus is spreading rapidly in the UK and is causing great concern among its European neighbors, some of whom have cut transport links.
The strain, called by some experts the B.1.1.7 lineage, is not the first new variant of the pandemic virus to emerge, but it is said to be up to 70% more transmissible than the strain previously dominant in the UK.
Are the concerns justified?
Most scientists say yes. The new variant has quickly become the dominant strain in COVID-19 cases in parts of southern England, and has been linked to increased hospitalization rates, particularly in London and the adjacent county of Kent .
While first seen in Britain in September, the week of December 9 in London, 62% of COVID-19 cases were due to the new variant, up from 28% of cases three weeks earlier .
The governments of Australia, Italy and the Netherlands say they have detected cases of the new strain. It was identified in the Netherlands in early December.
A few cases of COVID-19 with the new variant have also been reported to ECDC, the European disease surveillance agency, by Iceland and Denmark. The media in Belgium indicate that cases have also been detected there.
“It’s fair to take it seriously,” said Peter Openshaw, professor of experimental medicine at Imperial College London. Shaun Fitzgerald, visiting professor at Cambridge University, said the situation was “extremely worrying”.
The main concern is that the variant is significantly more transmissible than the original strain. It has 23 mutations in its genetic code – a relatively high number of changes – and some of them affect its ability to spread.
Scientists say it is 40 to 70% more transmissible. The UK government said on Saturday it could increase the “R” reproduction rate by 0.4.
This means it is spreading faster in Britain, making the pandemic even more difficult to control and increasing the risk that it will spread quickly to other countries as well.
“The new B.1.1.7… still appears to have all the human lethality that the original had, but with increased transmission capacity,” said Martin Hibberd, professor of emerging infectious diseases at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine .
Will vaccines protect against this variant?
Scientists say there is no evidence that vaccines currently being deployed in the UK – manufactured by Pfizer and BioNtech – or other COVID-19 vaccines in development will not protect against this variant.
“This is unlikely to have more than a minor, if any, effect on the effectiveness of the vaccine,” said Adam Finn, vaccine specialist and professor of pediatrics at the University of Bristol.
Britain’s chief scientific adviser Patrick Vallance also said COVID-19 vaccines appeared to be adequate in generating an immune response to the coronavirus variant.
“We are not seeing… any glaring changes in the spike protein that will reduce the effectiveness of the vaccine so far,” said Julian Tang, professor and clinical virologist at the University of Leicester.
Does the new variant affect testing?
To a certain extent, yes.
One of the mutations in the new variant affects one of the three genomic targets used by some PCR tests. This means that in these tests, this target area, or “channel”, would be negative.
“It affected the ability of some tests to detect the virus,” said Robert Shorten, microbiology expert at the Association for Clinical Biochemistry & Laboratory Medicine.
Since PCR tests typically detect more than one target gene, however, a mutation in the spike protein only partially affects the test, reducing the risk of false negative results.
Are there other significant variations?
Yes. Strains of the virus causing COVID-19 have emerged in recent months in South Africa, Spain, Denmark and other countries that have also raised concerns.
However, none, so far, contain mutations that make it more deadly or more likely to be able to escape vaccines or treatments.
Does this virus originate from the United Kingdom?
Vallance said on Saturday that he believed the new variant could have started in the UK. Some European scientists have attributed the identification of the mutation to British expertise in genomic surveillance.
“The UK has one of the most comprehensive genetic surveillance programs in the world – 5-10% of all virus samples are genetically tested. Few countries are doing better, ”said Steven Van Gucht, head of viral diseases at the Belgian Institute of Health on Monday.