December 22, 2020

The coronavirus is mutating. How worried should you be?

Daily Briefing

    British officials on Saturday announced scientists have discovered a new, potentially far-more-contagious strain of the novel coronavirus in the United Kingdom (U.K.)—but they emphasized that the new variant is not more deadly than other strains of the virus and should not be resistant against vaccines.

    Just released: The global Covid-19 vaccination scenario planning guide

    Scientists detect new strain of the coronavirus

    During a news conference Saturday, U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson and England's CMO Chris Whitty said scientists identified the new strain—labeled B 1.1.7—through Public Health England's genomic surveillance. According to the New York Times, the variant has about 20 mutations, including several that affect how the virus attaches to and infects cells in the body.

    Johnson during the conference announced stricter lockdown measures across the country, in the wake of a significant surge in Covid-19 cases over the past two weeks. And to limit the spread of the new variant, several other nations across Europe have in turn imposed or are considering bans on arrivals from the U.K. In addition, at least one country—Germany—is drawing up language for a travel ban on people coming from South Africa, where a variant similar to the one identified in the U.K.

    What's known about the new variant

    Johnson said scientists believe the new variant is more infectious than the original version of the novel coronavirus. "There's no evidence that it causes more severe illness or higher mortality, but it does appear to be passed on significantly more easily," Johnson said. "Although there's considerable uncertainty, it may be up to 70% more transmissible than … the original version of the" virus.

    However, Johnson noted this estimate is based on early data and "subject to review."

    Muge Cevik, an infectious disease expert at the University of St. Andrews, said the estimate is based on modeling and has not been confirmed through laboratory experiments. "Overall, I think we need to have a little bit more experimental data," Cevik said. "We can't entirely rule out the fact that some of this transmissibility data might be related to human behavior."

    Patrick Vallance, Britain's chief scientific adviser, said preliminary data shows the new variant is becoming the dominant strain circulating in some portions of England, including London and the south east and east of England.

    What do the latest findings mean?

    Scientists say they're concerned about the new variants of the coronavirus, but they're not shocked by the recent discoveries. Since the novel coronavirus has spread across the world, scientists have identified thousands of small modifications in the virus's genetic material.

    "This thing's transmitting, it's acquiring, it's adapting all the time," said Ravindra Gupta, a virologist at the University of Cambridge. "But people don't want to hear what we say, which is: This virus will mutate."

    Experts also say some strains of a virus may become more dominant in a population by chance and not because they've become supercharged versions of the virus, the Times reports. As a pathogen's survival becomes more difficult because of vaccinations or increasing immunity in human populations, experts anticipate a virus will gradually develop mutations to help it spread more easily or avoid the immune system's detection, according to the Times.

    As a result, many experts say people shouldn't be too alarmed by the new variants of the novel coronavirus, because it would take years—rather than months—for the virus to mutate to a point where people's antibodies against the virus or currently authorized vaccines would become ineffective, the Times reports.

    Jesse Bloom, an evolutionary biologist at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, said, "No one should worry that there is going to be a single catastrophic mutation that suddenly renders all immunity and antibodies useless."

    Noting that even the influenza virus needs between five and seven years to gather all the mutations necessary to evade immune recognition entirely, Bloom continued, "It is going to be a process that occurs over the time scale of multiple years and requires the accumulation of multiple viral mutations. It's not going to be like an on-off switch."

    Still, Bloom and other experts said the new variants should be closely watched. "It's a real warning that we need to pay closer attention," Bloom said. "Certainly, these mutations are going to spread, and, definitely, the scientific community—we need to monitor these mutations and we need to characterize which ones have effects."

    Separately, Vivek Murthy, a former U.S. surgeon general and President-elect Joe Biden's likely general nominee for the role, said the identification of a new strain of the coronavirus doesn't alter longstanding public health recommendations to wash hands, wear masks, and continue practicing social distancing (Mandavilli, New York Times, 12/20; Holden et al., Reuters, 12/19; Kupferschmidt, Science, 12/20; Associated Press/Modern Healthcare, 12/20).

    The global Covid-19 vaccination scenario planning guide

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    Learn about 10 hurdles—which cover regional coordination, resource constraints, and public willingness to receive vaccinations—that experts foresee making vaccine rollouts more challenging for health systems, regardless of country or when the first vaccines are approved.

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