LONDON – Dozens of countries have effectively tried to isolate the islands of the United Kingdom in a drastic attempt to stem the global spread of a new variant of the coronavirus.
But it may be too late, warn some experts.
The new variant – apparently so infectious that it has led Prime Minister Boris Johnson to effectively cancel Christmas for millions – has already been detected in places as far away as Denmark, Holland, Belgium, Italy, Iceland and Australia.
A similar variant, which came up separately but shares the same mutation in its spike protein, has been detected in South Africa, according to Nextstrain, an open source project that tracks genetic codes in real time.
Some believe the UK variant is probably already in the United States, where the federal government has resisted calls to tighten Europe’s already rigid travel restrictions.
Ultimately, travel bans may slow the new variant. In the long run, however, many scientists think that this strain, or a similar strain, will simply outperform the others in circulation and become the dominant version of the virus worldwide.
“I have no doubt that it is coming,” said Hajo Zeeb, a professor at the Leibniz Institute for Prevention and Epidemiology Research in Germany.
“From what we’ve learned about the virus, it will be difficult to contain,” he added, “and I don’t think it’s possible to stop it from spreading internationally.”
Dr. Anthony Fauci, America’s leading infectious disease specialist, is among those who believe that the new variant has probably reached the American shores. He says there is insufficient evidence to advise the White House to impose travel restrictions in addition to those imposed by President Donald Trump during the first weeks of the pandemic.
Trump has banned any foreigners who have been in Europe in the past 14 days, but this does not apply to U.S. citizens, legal residents or their family members under the age of 21. An average of six flights still operate between London and New York every day.
Several airlines, including Delta and British Airways, agreed on Monday with New York Governor Andrew Cuomo’s request that all UK passengers flying to New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport need to present a negative PCR test for coronavirus before traveling.
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Dr. Emma Hodcroft, molecular epidemiologist and co-developer of Nextstrain, is among those who believe it is possible to contain the new variant. But international restrictions will not do any good if governments continue not to contain the virus internally.
Hodcroft says governments would need to improve their “testing, tracking and isolation” systems – something that most of the West has failed to do this year – and perhaps even develop targeted PCR tests that can quickly detect the new variant.
“I don’t think it’s too late, but only if places start to act now and have a plan,” she said.
There is a lot that scientists don’t know – that’s why they have been asking for caution so that this variant doesn’t spread panic faster than the virus itself.
Viruses often mutate and this coronavirus has done so many times this year. There is no evidence that it is more deadly or that vaccines are less effective against it.
BioNTech, which together with Pfizer developed a Covid-19 vaccine that is being administered in the United States and the United Kingdom, is testing to see if its effectiveness will be affected.
“There is no cause for concern or concern until we have the data,” BioNTech Chief Executive Ugur Sahin told a news conference on Tuesday.
What worries experts and governments is that this variant appears to have invaded London and south-east England at an alarming rate.
This is what gave Britain the nickname “island of the plague” – an unfortunate nickname for a place generally eager to flaunt examples of its own exceptionalism.
Johnson again imposed a blockade on some 38 million of his people and more than 40 countries have restricted travel from the UK. One of them is France, a bottleneck that a large part of British trade goes through. This caused a de facto blockade, leaving at least 1,500 trucks stuck around the main English port of Dover.
For Johnson, who is simultaneously trying to negotiate a trade agreement with the European Union, these crises are building up quickly. The chaos around Dover is an unexpected omen of things to come if the UK is unable to negotiate a deal with the EU by the 31 December deadline.
However, despite all the bad public relations, it is unclear whether this variant really mutated in the UK or was only detected there first, thanks to the country’s leading genomic analysis capabilities in the country.
Modeling by scientists advising the British government projected that it is 71% more transmissible than others.
Although there is some margin of error around this number, the New and Emerging Respiratory Virus Threat Advisory Group, or Nervtag, analyzed four different types of data and said in a briefing on Friday that it was “moderately confident” that there were a “substantial increase in transmissibility.”
Although not confirmed, the advisory group believes that there is evidence that children may be more susceptible to it than other strains.
“There is an indication that he is more likely to infect children,” said Neil Ferguson, professor and infectious disease epidemiologist at Imperial College London who also works at Nervtag, at a news conference on Monday. “We have not established any causality in that, but we can see in the data. We need to collect more data to see how it behaves going forward.”
These are the first indications like this that have led other countries to take such drastic maneuvers. On Tuesday, the European Commission, the EU’s executive arm, recommended that the 27 EU member states lift any unilateral travel bans in the UK and instead discourage all but essential travel.
And Dr. Ashish Jha, dean of the Brown University School of Public Health, said that while such bans “slow him down, I doubt they will keep him out” of the United States
“I would be surprised if we didn’t have some of these cases already in this country. That is the nature of the global pandemic,” said Jha TODAY on Tuesday. “I don’t think that, ultimately, we will be able to keep that tension out of the US”