A new variant of the SARS-CoV-2, known as B.1.1.7, has been discovered in the rising cases in the United Kingdom and has been spreading very rapidly. The U.K. government estimates that the new coronavirus strain is more than 70% transmissible than other variants currently in circulation.
This new variant of the coronavirus has come to the attention of researchers in mid-December when there was a surge in coronavirus cases as well as it began to show up more frequently in patient samples from various parts of Southern England. However, it seems that this variant has been collected from patients from early September. The new variant of the disease was first detected in September, by November a quarter of new cases in London were attributed to it. However, by mid-December, it had reached three-quarters of all new cases. The mutated coronavirus strain that’s been spreading in the U.K. appears to be more contagious which will likely lead to higher levels of hospitalizations, placing further strain on health care systems around the world
The new variant of COVID-19 involves mutations in the structure of the virus. Jeffrey Barrett, director of the COVID-19 Genomics Initiative at the Wellcome Sanger Institute in the UK, noted that 23 nucleobases of the virus’s genetic code had changed, including 17 that could potentially impact the way the virus behaves and spreads.
Actions Taken Against the New SARS-CoV-2 Strain
Currently, over 40 countries have suspended travel with the United Kingdom in response to this new strain. Various European countries along with other countries are restricting travel from Britain since the new variant of the SARS-CoV-2 virus is spreading very rapidly in the United Kingdom. For example, according to the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA), India has temporarily suspended its Vande Bharat flights from the United Kingdom due to the emergence of a new strain of coronavirus.
Countries throughout Europe and the world announced that they would no longer admit any travelers from Britain, which includes Austria, Belgium, Italy, Ireland, Germany, France, and the Netherlands. Additionally, Boris Johnson, the prime minister of the United Kingdom, had introduced a new “Tier 4” level of restrictions, affecting 16.4 million people, including around 9 million people in all 32 London boroughs and much of southeast England.
Is the New Coronavirus Variant in the United States?
Currently, the new coronavirus variant has been identified the state of Colorado. No other US State has identified the variant yet. However, ongoing travel between the United States and the United Kingdom coupled with the increasing prevalence of the new variant in the UK makes the likelihood of it arriving in the US extremely high Furthermore, only about 51,000 viruses of the 17 million US cases have been sequenced. Given the small fraction of U.S. infections that have been sequenced, the variant could already be in the United States without having been detected.
Dr. Fauci, the United States leading infectious diseases expert, said on “Good Morning America” Tuesday morning that it’s “certainly possible” that the strain has hit the U.S. already. “When you have this amount of spread within a place like the U.K., you really need to assume that it’s here already … it certainly is not the dominant strain but I would certainly not be surprised at all if it is already here,” Fauci warns.
Implications of the New COVID-19 Variant
There are many potential consequences of the new COVID-19 variant. For example, the new COVID-19 variant is able to spread more quickly in humans. There is already evidence that one mutation, D614G, has this property to spread more quickly. In the lab, G614 variants propagate more quickly in human respiratory epithelial cells, out-competing D614 viruses. There also is evidence that the G614 variant spreads more quickly than viruses without the mutation.
Although there is currently no evidence whether or not the new COVID-19 variant is able to produce more severe illness than the other coronavirus variants, this new strain has the ability to cause either milder or more severe disease in humans. Furthermore, the new COVID strain has the ability to evade vaccine-induced immunity. This is because FDA-authorized vaccines are “polyclonal” which means that it has the capability to produce antibodies that target several parts of the spike protein. The virus would likely need to accumulate multiple mutations in the spike protein to evade immunity induced by vaccines or by natural infection.
Lastly, the new variant has the ability to evade vaccine-induced immunity. This brings up a concern that once a large proportion of the world’s population is vaccinated, there will be an immense amount of pressure that could favor and accelerate the emergence of such variants by selecting for “escape mutants.” Though there is no evidence that this is currently occurring, many experts believe that escape mutants are unlikely to emerge because of the nature of the virus.
Will the recent vaccines that are in the process of distribution protect us against the new COVID strain?
Pfizer and Moderna have recently started to administer COVID-19 vaccinations on health workers and at-risk people. With the discovery of the new COVID strain, Pfizer and Moderna are in the process of testing their FDA-authorized vaccines against the new strain of the virus. Both of these companies anticipate that it will take about a couple of weeks before they can confirm whether or not their vaccine will protect us against the new coronavirus strain. As of now, there is no evidence that the vaccines will not be effective against the new strain.
However, Moderna expects its mRNA-based vaccine, mRNA-1273, will provide immunity against the new strain. On the other hand, Pfizer is generating data on neutralizing the new strain from blood samples of people immunized with their vaccine.
Some experts believe that mRNA-based vaccines will likely be effective against the new coronavirus strain found in the United Kingdom. This is due to the fact that the genetic material in mRNA-based vaccines can be quickly re-engineered to match that of the mutated protein. However, many experts believe that the new strain may reduce the efficacy rates of the vaccines.
As countries around the world are beginning to roll out coronavirus vaccines, the U.K. reported yet another strain of the virus which is reported to be even more transmissible than the recently discovered B117 strain. At present, scientists and researchers have not found the said variant of the virus more deadly but have found it 70% more transmissible than its previous versions. Scientists are vigilantly researching this new COVID strain and are trying to determine the current vaccine efficacy against the new variant. The question of when COVID-19 will come to an end still remains unclear. The only way to find out is by testing patients and analyzing case studies to find answers to the questions and concerns on the rise regarding the new mutation of COVID-19.
Samiksha Komatireddy, Youth Medical Journal 2020
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