A new variant of the coronavirus is spreading in England. At the same time, the country is reporting a record high number of COVID-19 cases – nearly 40,000 on Wednesday – as well as an increase in hospitalizations and deaths. Last week in London, about 2% of people in private households tested positive for coronavirus, The Independent reported.
So the big question is: Are these events related? Does the new variant cause this wave?
Now British scientists are beginning to answer that question. And the message to take home is sobering. The new variant, which contains 17 mutations, seems more portable and more difficult to control in terms of spread.
“Given all the biological and epidemiological evidence that has gathered over the past few weeks, I think the picture is becoming more consistent with something quite serious,” says mathematical model Nick Davies, who led the study.
Davies is part of a group of scientists in the UK, called SPI-M, whose job is to use mathematical models to predict how diseases will spread to guide policymakers ’decisions.
Last week, when health officials announced an increase in this new variant, Davies was suspicious of being responsible for the sharp rise in the UK: “Because one possible explanation for the increase in hospitalizations can only be that we just came out of the blockade of this region, maybe people have returned to more normal movement and contacts. “
And besides, all viruses mutate. That is normal. The vast majority of mutations are harmless. They do not make the virus more dangerous.
But a few days later, Davies was watching the news from South Africa and his skepticism evaporated. COVID-19 also grows there. At the same time, scientists there have discovered a new variant that shares striking similarities with that of the UK. Both versions contain a mutation called N501Y. This mutation has appeared in previous variants and is already known to increase how tightly the virus binds to human cells.
And so Davies went to work. He inserted the data about the new UK version into computer models. He wanted to know why the new variant was spreading so fast. He tested four key hypotheses. Can a new variant:
- Infectious people who already had COVID-19?
- Is it easier to infect children?
- Spread faster than previous versions?
- Being more portable? (That is, when people catch a new variant, will they probably expand it to more people than when they are infected with other versions?)
The mathematical models, published online Wednesday but not yet reviewed, pointed to one of these four hypotheses. “Increased portability is the easiest way to explain what we see,” Davies says.
Specifically, the study suggests that the new variant is about 50% more transmissible than previous versions of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19. But the data still cannot rule out the possibility that other factors may also contribute to the dominance of the new variant in England. There is also no evidence that the variant causes a more serious disease than previous versions.
And scientists don’t know why this variant is probably more portable. Previous studies, with the second variant, suggest that the UK variant may more easily infect human cells. And it can create multiple copies of itself in person. “When you wipe people who have a coronavirus infection, people infected with this new variant usually have multiple copies of the virus on the swab,” says Davies, who is also part of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.
Whatever the underlying reason, policymakers should take this new variant very seriously, says epidemiologist Bill Hanage of the Harvard TH Chan School of Public Health. If it is truly 50% transmissible, it will be difficult to stop its spread.
“Given the assumptions of their models, it’s really pretty hard to avoid a situation like the one that happened last spring, in terms of hospital bed capacity and surges, without a very high vaccination rate,” Hanage says.
Still, Hanage says there is no reason for people to panic or fear. “It’s not a magic virus,” he says – it was also written on Twitter by message virus expert Ian Mackay of the University of Queensland.
“We’ve actually come across a number of ways we can stop this. However, we need to redouble our efforts in that direction.”
The variant will probably come to the US – if it is not already here. The study strongly suggests that people should be even more diligent in preventive measures: avoiding large gatherings. wearing masks, physical distancing and hand washing. On top of all that, Hanage says, “the vaccine has to come out very, very fast.”
Because currently scientists believe the vaccine will continue to be effective with this new variant. And Hanage says that the sooner we immunize vulnerable members of the community, the safer the entire community will be from the original and future versions of the new coronavirus.