In mid-September this year, epidemiologists were surprised to find a new variant (or strain) of the coronavirus that was significantly different from all the others. This strain has been observed in the Kent area and wider London in the UK. This strain, called B.1.1.7, continued to appear in the UK and several other countries. By December, British health officials were worried about how fast it had spread, and a series of strict bans on locks and travel came into force. Here is everything you need to know about the new strain of Coronavirus.
What does it mean to have a new strain of virus?
All viruses can mutate. Molecules that encode a genetic sequence (DNA or RNA), like any physical thing, can change over time. Viral mutations can result in: (1) no change in the shape of the virus or its behavior, (2) changes in the shape of the virus, but no change in the behavior of the virus, (3) changes in the shape of the virus i how he behaves. Any change in behavior can be neutral (no difference in the way the virus affects us), positive (the virus is potentially less harmful) or negative (virus is potentially more harmful). This new variant is worrying because it is harmful because a mutation in its behavior can lead to easier spread.
Coronaviruses mutate more slowly than other viruses, such as influenza, but the rate of mutation can be accelerated under certain conditions (for example, in patients with immunodeficiency or with certain treatments). Epidemiologists have tracked several variants circulating globally.
Why is this tension in the news?
This strain stands out for three reasons. First, it is unusual – it is much different of the other variants, with a much larger number of mutations. Second, this variant B.1.1.7 appeared and spread very quickly, faster than the other variants. It was first discovered on September 20, but by mid-November, officials reported that it was 26% of all cases in the UK, and by the first week of December it was 60% of all cases in London. Third, when we look more closely at the details of mutations, they seem to encode changes in the virus that could really (theoretically) help the virus spread more efficiently.
It is difficult to be sure whether this variant is actually spreading faster. There may be confusing factors – perhaps instead of spreading faster, this owl happened to be in more densely populated areas or moving on holiday trips. Over the course of this year, we’ve seen that early data can be messy or misleading, and there’s still more data out there.
Will we be sicker than the other variants?
There is currently no evidence that this can make people sicker than other strains, but at this point it is difficult to say with certainty. If made people sicker, we would expect people infected with this new strain to be hospitalized and / or die faster than those infected with other strains. It is too early, however, to say whether there is any difference. There is unconfirmed evidence in South Africa that younger, healthier people become sicker than the strain there, but it is possible that this difference is due to other factors (e.g., locations, higher exposures, etc.).
Where is this virus now?
This variant was first discovered in the UK, but cases have now been reported in the Netherlands, Denmark and Australia. It is likely that the strain is already in other countries, including the United States, but the United Kingdom discovered it earlier because they followed the spread of the virus more closely. Other mutations may occur. A strain that has emerged in South Africa shares one of the mutations with B.1.1.7 that affects the shape of the virus – this South African virus also appears to have spread faster than expected.
What does this mean for the vaccine?
Mutations in B.1.1.7 affect the form of one of the meta-vaccines Pfizer-BioNTech and Modern – spike protein – by asking whether vaccines will protect us from a new strain. But the vaccine stimulates multiple “layers” of immunity. It is difficult for a soybean to be able to overcome all these layers so quickly. From now on, there is a high probability that vaccines will continue to be effective. But over time, perhaps over the years, we may need boosters or revaccination, as we do with the seasonal flu virus. One of the advantages of the new technology on which these vaccines are based is that it is easier to adapt the vaccine to new targets than the flu vaccine.
What does this mean for us at the moment?
Currently, officials are trying to work out travel bans and policies in response to this new tension. We will probably need to establish better controls, similar to the system in the UK, to predict more mutations. Dr. Fauci, head of the infectious diseases department at the National Institutes of Health, advised them to take this variant seriously, but not to overdo it. Finally, the basic response to a highly contagious virus is to limit the possibilities for transmission – distancing and masking. Pandemic fatigue is real, especially during the winter holidays at the end of a difficult year. By separating and supporting each other as we intensify vaccination, we can go through this together.
Dharushana Muthulingam, Ph.D. Med., MS, is an infectious disease physician and public health researcher in St. Louis, MO