A new variant of the novel coronavirus has been identified in the United Kingdom. England’s Chief Medical Officer Chris Whitty said on December 19 that the new variant of the coronavirus, which causes COVID-19, can spread faster.
Scientists are working to confirm if the mutation leads to a higher mortality rate or cause more severe illnesses.
The emergence of the new strain of the deadly virus has forced the UK government to put London and southern England under an emergency lockdown ahead of Christmas. The UK had reported over 20.4 lakh COVID-19 cases as of December 21, including more than 67,400 deaths.
France, Germany, Italy, Belgium, Austria and the Netherlands, among others, have temporarily banned flights from the UK due to the spread of a new strain. India’s Union Health Ministry also called an urgent meeting on December 21 to discuss the development.
All viruses have the ability to mutate. Thus, the emergence of this novel coronavirus variant was not unexpected. It is to be noted that this is not the first time the SARS-Cov-2 has mutated. Scientists had identified nearly 200 genetic mutations in the virus as early as May. Only some of these mutations are significant.
The Guardian quoted Whitty as saying that the new strain could be up to 70 percent more transmissible and could increase the R value by 0.4 or more. So far, it has not appeared to raise the risk of severe illness or the mortality rate.
What we don’t not know yet
Scientists are concerned about the new variant’s spike protein. The spike protein is the part of the virus that allows it to infiltrate cells in the lungs, throat, etc. This happens because due to the spike protein’s interaction with the ACE-2 receptor. The mutation on the spike protein may make it easier for the virus to interact with ACE-2.
The mutations has also raised concerns whether vaccines currently under development will work against the variant. Vaccines are designed to develop antibodies against the spike protein. Thus, there is a possibility that the mutation may not allow the vaccine to develop antibodies. Scientists would be monitoring this to take appropriate actions.
Are existing protocols sufficient to stop its transmission?
Scientists currently do not have enough information about the new variant to know if it will impact existing guidelines such as social distancing and mask wearing.
As the virus is believed to be more transmissible, it would lead to many more deaths even with the same mortality rate. Thus, safety protocols will remain in place.