Over the course of the year, the novel coronavirus, which took millions of lives worldwide in one year, has experienced several mutations. However, the introduction of a new mutation of the virus has led to panic in the country.
The new strain, also known as lineage B.1.1.7, is called VUI-202012/01 (the first ‘Variant Under Review’ in December 2020), characterized by 17 modification mutations. In principle, improvements in this part of the spike protein can contribute to the virus becoming more contagious and spreading amongst people more easily.
In the United Kingdom, the rapid dissemination of the new form of coronavirus is provoking a fight or flight reaction from nations across the world. More than a dozen countries have now closed their doors to UK flights due to discovering the new mutation of the COVID-19 virus that has infected more than 90 million people worldwide since last year’s outbreak.
Since then, a variety of concerns about the existence of the current mutation and its impact on vaccines’ production have emerged. In this article we will provide relevant information about the virus and the new mutation.
How Did The New Variant Emerge?
The Public Health England identified the new strain using genomic surveillance, after which the Government of the United Kingdom was warned about the extremity of the situation on 18th December. The UK sent their observations to WHO on the same day.
It is suspected that the latest UK version first appeared in September 2020 in Southeast England, which made it the primary point of the virus, which was then found in Denmark, Belgium, and the Netherlands.
The latest strain may already be in other countries, according to Patrick Vallance, Chief Science Advisor of the United Kingdom, but may have originated in the United Kingdom, adding that “it inevitably leads to a sharp rise in hospital admissions.”
A variation of the D614G gene, the strain occurred independently in main different places. However, according to virologists, only one lineage of the mutation spread easily across the world, driven by human behavior, and is now present in virtually all sequences.
Scientists believe that the mutation isn’t uncommon as viruses tend to undergo multiple mutations and were relieved that the latest change in the virus strain didn’t show any signs of increased virulence. The strain arrived separately in the UK and South Africa, and it’s known as 501Y.V2 in South Africa.
How Fast Is It Spreading?
Considering two-thirds of the total number of cases were identified between September and December, it’s safe to say that the new strain is spreading rapidly.
In an attempt to measure how much of an advantage this one would have, the numbers on the distribution of numerous versions were analysed. It is difficult to classify the transmission based on what can be ascribed to people’s behaviors and what to the virus.
The virus could be up to 70% transmissible, according to Prime Minister Boris. He said that this could raise the R number by 0.4, which shows whether an outbreak is increasing or shrinking. From the Imperial College in London, Dr Erik Volz, the first individual to present the 70% figure, stated that while it was too soon to determine the exact impact of the new strain, the strain is growing faster than the preceding variant. He also stressed upon the importance of monitoring the new strain.
However, a virologist from the University of Nottingham contradicted the statement as he stresses that the lack of evidence in the public domain needs to be taken into account, and hence, it’s unethical to draw firm opinions on the increased transmission of the new strain.
How Dangerous Is The New Variant?
The discovery of the new strain of the COVID-19 virus has triggered urgent testing. US Secretary of Health Matt Hancock has warned that parts of England will be stuck under the current higher tier of COVID-19 limitations before a vaccine is carried out.
While the analysis suggests that the new strain is 70% more transmissible as compared to its older counterpart, there’s no evidence to support the argument that the new variant is more deadly or causes more serious symptoms.
In fact, according to a statement published by Ewan Birney in the Guardian, if the new strain of the Coronavirus were more transmissible than its predecessor, or had a major impact on the severity of the symptoms, we would have seen it by now. Ewan Birney is the deputy director-general of the European Molecular Biology Laboratory and Joint Director of the European Bioinformatics Institute in Cambridge
Will the vaccines work against the new variant?
As per most virologists, the new vaccine will work against the new variant, as there is no evidence to show otherwise. As vaccines train the immune system against different parts of the virus, the mutated spike should not impact the vaccine’s functionality and effectiveness. However, according to a renowned virologist from the University of Cambridge, Prof Gupta, we need to start worrying about the new strain if there are any new mutations identified as it could lead to vaccine escape. Vaccine escape occurs as the infection shifts so that it prevents the vaccine’s full effect and proceeds to kill people. However, he also stated that the new strain is proof that the virus is capable of evolving as it continues to infect more of us, which is a potential cause of concern. Adding to his, Prof. David Robertson, from the University of Glasgow has stated that the virus will most likely create mutants that are vaccine escapes.
As per the recent reports, it’s determined that the vaccines for COVID-19 will need to be treated like a flu situation, wherein the vaccine is updated periodically, based on the mutations.
How Far Has The New Variant Spread?
The main source for the new strain has not been detected yet, but it’s said to be found first in a patient in the UK, but it’s still possible that the strain was first created in a country with poorer measures to detect the mutation in the virus.
While it doesn’t look like the new virus strain is present in countries all over the world, the mutation is majorly found in various parts of England, including the UK, and highly concentrated cases in London, and Northern Ireland.
Using data analytics to record and study the genetic codes of viral samples around the world, it has been proved that cases have come from the UK in Denmark and Australia. The Netherlands has reported cases as well.
According to virus specialist Pei-Yong Shi at the University of Texas Medical Division, while the spread of the virus depends on multiple factors, individuals’ behavior in a group matters the most. So, if people wear masks, distance themselves physically, and avoid large gatherings, the spread of the virus can be controlled better.
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