Covid-19 has undergone many mutations over the year, but the appearance of the new variant in the United Kingdom has raised alarm in the country. The new variant VUI – 202012/01, also known as lineage B.1.1.7, is suspected to be the reason behind the sharp rise in cases in the country. Moreover, scientists and researchers have said that this new strain has much higher transmissibility than compared to the earlier variant.
At a time when several countries across the world await an effective Covid vaccine, the discovery of the new variant of coronavirus has posed several questions — Is there’s an increased health risk? Will it have any impact on the vaccine or the treatment? Can a vaccine stop coronavirus new strain? Here’s all you need to know about the impact of new Covid-19 variant that has alerted authorities in the UK.
‘VIRUSES MUTATE ALL THE TIME’
It is normal for viruses to mutate all the time. Most of the new variants die out, but there are times when they spread without altering the virus’s behaviour. Rarely, they trigger dramatic changes.
“This is quite normal for viruses — like influenza — where different viruses may infect the same person, leading to a hybrid virus emerging. This is just one of the ways that natural viral variation arises,” Dr Julian Tang, Clinical Virologist at the University of Leicester explained.
Since the outbreak was first reported in Wuhan, China, the novel coronavirus, which has claimed lives of millions across the world within a year, had undergone several mutations.
Early November, the US reported that more than 15,000 minks in the country had died of the coronavirus since August. Denmark had also decided to cull its mink population of up to 17 million, saying a mutated coronavirus strain could move to humans and evade future Covid-19 vaccines.
Following this, a Danish vaccine specialist warned that a new wave of coronavirus could be started by the Covid-19 mink variant, a report in The Guardian said.
Prof Kare Molbak, vaccine expert and director of infectious diseases at Denmark’s State Serum Institute (SSI), told The Guardian, “The worst-case scenario is that we would start off a new pandemic in Denmark. There’s a risk that this mutated virus is so different from the others that we’d have to put new things in a vaccine and therefore [the mutation] would slam us all in the whole world back to the start.”
In October, it was found that a coronavirus variant, originated in Spanish farmworkers, was spreading rapidly through Europe and accounted for most UK cases.
However, in neither case, it was found that the variants increased the transmission of the disease — which is not the case for the variant VUI-202012/01.
The new variant contains 23 different changes, many of them associated with alterations in a protein made by the virus. Preliminary genomic characterisation suggests that the UK variant B.1.1.7 has an unusually large number of genetic changes, particularly in the spike protein which is often responsible for how the virus interacts with a human cell.
ANY THREAT BY THE NEW COVID VARIANT?
The UK announced last week that a new strain of Covid-19 identified there can spread more quickly and urgent work is underway to confirm that it does not cause a higher mortality rate. US Health Secretary Matt Hancock also warned suggesting that parts of England will be stuck in the new higher tier of Covid-19 restrictions until a vaccine is rolled out.
According to Reuters, the new variant is thought to have first occurred in mid-September in London or Kent, in the southeast of England.
UK analysis suggests that the new strain may be up to 70 per cent more transmissible than the old variant. However, there is no evidence to prove that it is more lethal or causes more severe illness.
As per a report in the Guardian, Ewan Birney, deputy director-general of the European Molecular Biology Laboratory and joint director of its European Bioinformatics Institute in Cambridge, said, “If the new variant was going to have a big impact on disease severity, we would have seen that by now.”
CAN VACCINE STOP NEW COVID STRAIN?
There is no evidence suggesting vaccines will be any less effective against the new variant, UK PM Boris Johnson said.
Meanwhile, Britain’s Chief Scientific Adviser Patrick Vallance said Covid-19 vaccines appeared to be adequate in generating an immune response to the variant of the coronavirus.
Experts have not found any reason to suggest that the new mutation would affect the vaccination yet. The UK government’s advisory body, New and Emerging Respiratory Virus Threats Advisory Group (NERVTAG), has released a paper in this regard as well.
“We are not seeing any increased virulence [clinical severity] or any gross changes in the S [spike protein] that will reduce vaccine effectiveness — so far,” said Dr Tang in response to the NERVTAG paper.
Dr Jeremy Farrar, Director of Wellcome Trust, agrees but issues a caution. He said, “At the moment, there is no indication that this new strain would evade treatments and vaccines. However, the mutation is a reminder of the power of the virus to adapt and that cannot be ruled out in the future.”
Moreover, The Guardian quoted Birney as saying that the vaccines have been tested with many variants of the virus circulating. “So there is every reason to think that the vaccines will still work against this new strain, though obviously, that needs to be tested thoroughly.”
WHY IS UK VARIANT SIGNIFICANT?
The reason which has set the alarms off in the UK and hence elsewhere are — first, this particular lineage accounts for an increasing proportion of cases in parts of UK and second, the number of linked cases as well as regions reporting B.1.1.7 infections have been growing.
On Saturday, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson imposed tighter coronavirus curbs on millions of people in England and largely reversed plans to ease restrictions over Christmas, as the country battles a new more infectious strain of the virus.
The Indian government is also seeking expert advice on the matter.
WHAT IS A MUTATION?
A mutation is a change in an organism’s genetic material. When a virus makes millions of copies of itself and moves from host to host, not every copy is identical. These small mutations accumulate as the virus is passed on – and copied again and again.
(With inputs from Reuters)