- The coronavirus has mutated, with a variant called B.1.1.7 causing concern.
- Emerging evidence suggests that B.1.1.7 is probably about 70% more infectious than other variants.
- There is growing speculation that children are more susceptible to infection with the variant, but we are not sure.
- The UK’s largest teachers’ union has requested that schools remain closed for two weeks from 4 January.
- Here is everything we know so far.
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A variant of the coronavirus called B.1.1.7 is causing a major disruption, precipitating new blocks and travel restrictions.
Experts are beginning to suggest that children are more susceptible to B.1.1.7. – and the UK’s largest teachers’ union has asked schools to remain closed for two weeks from 4 January.
The evidence, for now, remains inconclusive and scientists continue to investigate. Here’s what we know so far.
Why is the variant more infectious?
An increasing number of people are becoming infected with COVID-19 – the disease that causes the coronavirus – and scientists say B.1.1.7 is probably more infectious, but the evidence is still emerging.
Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the US National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said on Tuesday that the UK variant has probably spread to the United States.
More information is expected in the coming weeks, but B.1.1.7 is not believed to be more or less deadly than the original virus.
It is normal for a virus to mutate and there have been tens of thousands of coronavirus mutations.
The new variant, however, significantly changes the virus, potentially changing its behavior. For example, B.1.1.7 has changes in the spike protein – the part of the virus that is used to infect cells – which may mean that it enters cells more easily.
Spike protein is also the target of vaccines, but experts believe the vaccines will still work.
Are children more susceptible to the new variant?
“There is an indication that he is more likely to infect children,” Professor Neil Ferguson told reporters on Monday. He is an infectious disease epidemiologist at Imperial College London and also a member of the New and Emerging Respiratory Virus Threats Group – NERVTAG – the UK government advisory group.
The reason for the difference may be the fact that the body’s ACE-2 receptor, where the virus binds, is slightly different in children and adults.
Ferguson told Commons’ select committee on Wednesday that there were anecdotal reports of the variant in schools in areas of England now under the strictest block.
The concern contrasts with previous variants of the coronavirus that circulate in the UK. Chris Whitty, the UK’s medical director, said in a statement in August that there was reasonable – though not conclusive – evidence that elementary school children were less likely to catch COVID-19 than the general population.
Professor Wendy Barclay, head of the Department of Infectious Diseases at Imperial College London, and a member of NERVTAG, said in a briefing to reporters on Tuesday, that variant B.1.1.7 may bind to the ACE-2 receptor better in children, adding that she was speculating.
“I didn’t see any data that says it is actually being transmitted more in children,” said Barclay.
Barclay explained that it is unusual for children not to be affected by a respiratory virus.
“We know that almost all other respiratory infections spread among children. I would not be surprised that, eventually, they would spread freely [amongst children],” she said,
Ferguson said on Wednesday that there was a small – but statistically significant – increase in the proportion of cases under the age of 15 with the new variant, compared to the old. He said that this does not mean that it will affect children even more.
“I would emphasize – although it is a significant change [in age distribution], it is not a big change. It is relatively small, “he added.
‘Too early to say’
Ferguson, whose coronavirus predictions triggered the first block in the UK, said scientists need to gather more data to see how the variant behaves.
Speaking to BBC Radio 4 on Monday, Ferguson said he expects a decline in all variants of the virus in circulation while schools remain closed for the holidays, but that it is too early to say exactly what additional measures may be needed in the new year.
Some scientists have advocated closing schools only as a last resort. Professor Deenan Pillay, professor of virology at University College London, told the Guardian on Monday that the focus should be on supporting schools to operate as safely as possible.
“It is easy to start thinking of this variant as a different virus, but no, it is the same virus. And it is transmitted in the same way,” he said.
The UK government can count on tests to support schools.
“If we work together on the tests, we can keep schools open,” said Gavin Williamson, the UK’s secretary of education, in a statement on Monday.
The variant can be detected by normal tests, although some may need to be slightly altered. A test used by major UK laboratories looks at three parts of the virus’s genetic sequence. The mutations in B.1.1.7 mean that only two of the three parts of the virus that normally appear are positive.
Experts recommend that measures that restrict the spread of the virus, such as social detachment, remain paramount. The challenge will come in 2021, when it will be necessary to make decisions about schools.
“The real question then is – how much are we able to relax the measures in the new year and still maintain control?” said Ferguson.