Alarming, new COVID-19 virus strain in the UK

A rising wave of covid-19 cases in the south of England has been blamed on a new variant of the SarsCov-2 virus, which was named VUI-202012/01. The new strain, first detected in September, is now behind half the cases in the region. Genomic researchers have found that only does the variant have a lot of mutations, but several of the genetic alterations are predicted to make possibly significant changes to its spike protein, a part of the virus that plays a key role in infecting cells. On Saturday, the UK prime minister cancelled Christmas for millions of people after he was advised, that the new variant is up to 70% more transmissible.

On Saturday, December 19, UK prime minister Boris Johnson, gave a televised press conference in which he announced new restrictions on movement for the Christmas season, and a total lockdown in London and the south-east in response to the sudden spike in cases. “It seems that the spread is now being driven by the new variant,” Johnson told the public. “It does appear that it is passed on significantly more easily.” His experts, Johnson said, had made preliminary calculations that the new strain may be up to 70% more transmissible. The immediate result of the leader’s comments was panic. Although there isn’t evidence the new strain is more deadly, by Sunday several European countries including Italy, Ireland, Germany, France, and the Netherlands were restricting travel to the UK due to the new strain. The UK-France Eurotunnel closed on Sunday night as France shut its borders to travellers from the UK for 48 hours.

The rapid spread of a new strain of coronavirus is the “worst news” of the pandemic so far, and Britons should be “very concerned” about the mutated strain of COVID-19 that is circulating in London and the South East, Professor Andrew Hayward of the government’s New and Emerging Respiratory Virus Threats Advisory Group (NERVTAG) says in a statement. Stressing the importance of how much easier this strain passes from person-to-person, he said: “This is terrible news in terms of the pandemic. “If the vaccine is the best news, this is the worst news we’ve had so far, and we really, need to tighten down the hatches to stop the spread of this strain while vaccinating as many people as possible.”

Professor Hayward, who is director of the Institute of Epidemiology and Healthcare at University College London (UCL), mentions that this is because the new strain results in people having a much bigger viral load. He added that areas that have not yet seen huge caseloads of the new strain are “around three weeks behind” those put into the toughest new Tier 4 restrictions over the weekend.

Asked how the new mutation was able to thrive despite England’s nationwide lockdown in November, Professor Hayward said the restrictions were “less intense” and people’s attitudes to them were “less stringent”. “Worryingly, even though we had relatively strong measures that were enough to suppress the previous virus, they weren’t enough to stop this one,” he added. But he said if the UK is to mitigate “many, many more deaths” as a result of VUI-202012/01, people need to reduce their contacts with others over the Christmas period. And after a string of countries banned travel to the UK to stop the new strain getting in, Professor Hayward suggested the UK should “take its own action” to close its borders. He disputed claims the government’s action on the new strain has been “too slow”, saying his NERVTAG committee first discussed it on 11 December. “I don’t think it’s fair to say the government has been slow to act on this. It’s more a question of how much further we need to act,” he said.

By Jumana Jabeer

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