There is growing alarm across the globe after scientists in UK described a newly identified variant of the coronavirus that appears to be more contagious than, and genetically distinct from, more established variants.
The new variant is being called VUI-202012/01 - the first "Variant Under Investigation" in the UK in December 2020. Even as scientists hunt for more information about the variant, its impact is already being felt – the mutation has been linked to a recent surge in cases in UK, and several countries have imposed restrictions on travellers from the UK.
According to reports, the new variant of the Sars-Cov-2 could be up to 70 per cent more transmissible than the old variant. But there are still several unanswered questions that are multiplying as fast as new strain of the virus: Does it make people sicker or does it mean that treatments and vaccines won’t work?
So let's take a look at what we know so far about the new Covid-19 strain:
What is a virus variant and why is there concern about the UK strain?
Mutation are changes that are common when a virus replicates within a host. This is because the replication is not perfect. Imperfect copies of the virus die out, but ever so often, a mutation could end up giving it properties that make it stronger or more infective.
The new strain found in UK is just one variation among many that have arisen as the coronavirus SARS-CoV-2 has spread around the world. But a new strain can become dominant if one strain is a “founder” strain — the first one to take hold and start spreading in an area, or because “super spreader” events helped it become established.
It also can happen if a mutation gives a new variant an advantage, such as helping it spread more easily than other strains that are circulating, as appears to be the case in Britain.
When was the new strain found? What is worrisome about it?
According to the World Health Organisation, the new variant of Covid-19 originated in southeast England. The variant came to the attention of researchers in December, when it began to turn up more frequently in samples from parts of southern England. It turned out to have been collected from patients as early as September.
Researchers who studied the genome of this new variant observed there were a relatively large number of mutations — 23 — that it had acquired. While most mutations are either harmful to the virus or have no effect, a number of the mutations in this new variant looked as if they could potentially affect how the coronavirus spread.
The new variant has eight mutations on the spike protein that the virus uses to attach to and infect cells. The spike is what vaccines and antibody drugs target. Dr. Ravi Gupta, a virus expert at the University of Cambridge in England, said modeling studies suggest it may be up to two times more infectious than the strain that’s been most common in England so far.
Is the new coronavirus strain more contagious?
Yes, it appears so. Preliminary data from the UK shows that the virus is spreading quickly in parts of southern England, displacing other variants that have been circulating for months. Chris Whitty, England's chief medical officer, said the variant was responsible for 60 per cent of new infections in London, which have nearly doubled in the last week alone.
The UK government's New and Emerging Respiratory Virus Threats Advisory Group said it had “moderate confidence” that this new variant “demonstrates a substantial increase in transmissibility compared to other variants.”
Neil Ferguson, a public health researcher at Imperial College London, estimates that the variant has an increased transmission rate of 50 per cent to 70 per cent compared to other variants in the United Kingdom. But more research is still required. The increase in transmission is believed to be at least partly because it may make children “as equally susceptible as adults,” said Wendy Barclay, a virologist at Imperial College London.
Does it make people sicker or more likely to die?
There’s no indication that either of those is true, but clearly those are two issues that need further consideration, Dr. Philip Landrigan, a former Centers for Disease Control and Prevention scientist who directs a global health program at Boston College in US, told Associated Press. A WHO outbreak expert, Maria Van Kerkhove, said Monday that “the information that we have so far is that there isn’t a change” in the kind of illness or its severity from the new strain.
However, there is reason to take the possibility of the new strain making people sicker more seriously. In South Africa, another lineage of the coronavirus has gained one particular mutation that is also found in the UK strain. This variant is spreading quickly through coastal areas of South Africa. And in preliminary studies, doctors there have found that people infected with this variant carry a heightened viral load — a higher concentration of the virus in their upper respiratory tract. In many viral diseases, this is associated with more severe symptoms.
Has the new strain been found in India? What steps are being taken to control its spread?
The new strain has so far not been found in India, at least as far as anyone knows. However, the variant has already spread globally. Apart from the UK, the variant has been detected in Denmark, Belgium, the Netherlands and Australia, according to the WHO. A similar but separate variant has also been identified in South Africa. Now that the world knows to look for the variant, it may turn up in more countries.
The Indian government on Monday said it would suspend flights from the United Kingdom until the end of the year over fears of the new strain.
Separately, several states are also taking steps. Maharashtra said it would impose an 11 p.m.-6 a.m. curfew in major cities until January 5 and also mandate 14 days of institutional quarantine for all travellers arriving from Europe and the Middle East.
Governments in West Bengal and Telangana are preparing lists of passengers who arrived from the UK in the last few weeks, while Karnataka has made it a negative Covid-19 test mandatory for those who travelled from England and Denmark.
Will the new coronavirus strain make the new vaccines ineffective?
The presumption is that current vaccines would still be effective against the variant, but scientists are working to confirm that. Vaccines induce broad immune system responses besides just prompting the immune system to make antibodies to the virus, so they are expected to still work, several scientists said.
The vaccines from Moderna and Pfizer, which have so far been approved in the US, create immunity to the coronavirus by teaching our immune systems to make antibodies to a protein that sits on the surface of the virus, called spike. The spike protein latches onto cells and opens a passageway. Antibodies produced in response to the vaccines stick to the tip of the spike and stop the viruses from getting inside.
While it is conceivable that the mutation could change the shape of the coronavirus spike proteins, making it harder for the antibodies to gain a tight grip on them, experts right now don’t think that the variant will be able to evade vaccines.