Reports from the UK and South Africa of new strains of coronavirus that appear to be spreading more easily are alarming, but virus experts say it is unclear whether this is the case, or whether they raise vaccine concerns or cause more serious illness.
Viruses develop naturally as they move through the population, some more than others. This is one reason why we need a new flu shot every year.
New variants or strains of the virus that causes COVID-19 have been observed almost since it was first detected in China almost a year ago.
On Saturday, Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced new restrictions due to the new strain, and several European Union countries have banned or restricted some flights from the UK to limit spread.
The following is known about the situation.
WHAT ARE YOU ABOUT ABOUT THE LAST STRAIN FOUND IN ENGLAND?
Health experts in the UK and US said the strain appears to be easier to infect than others, but there is no evidence that it is any more deadly.
Patrick Vallance, the UK government’s chief scientific adviser, said the strain “is moving fast and is becoming the dominant variety” causing over 60% of infections in London by December.
The strain is also of concern because it has so many mutations – nearly two dozen – and some are on the prickly protein the virus uses to attach to cells and infect them. This tip is the target of the current vaccines.
“I’m concerned about that, of course,” said Dr. Ravi Gupta, who studies viruses at the University of Cambridge in England. “However, it is too early to know how important it will ultimately be.” He and other researchers published a report on this on a website where scientists can quickly share developments. However, the paper has not been officially reviewed or published in a journal.
HOW DO THESE NEW STRAINS CREATE?
Viruses often only get small changes of a letter or two in their genetic alphabet through normal evolution. A slightly modified strain may become the most common in a country or region simply because that is the strain that first established itself there, or because “super spreader” events helped it become established.
A bigger concern is when a virus mutates by altering the proteins on its surface to protect it from drugs or the immune system.
Trevor Bedford, a biologist and geneticist at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle, wrote on Twitter that new evidence may emerge with the new coronavirus. “We have now seen several variants emerge and spread,” suggesting and some showing resistance to antibody treatments, he noted.
What other stresses did you encounter?
In April, Swedish researchers found a virus with two genetic changes that appeared to make it about twice more contagious, Gupta said. Around 6,000 cases have been reported worldwide, mainly in Denmark and England.
Several variations of this strain have now appeared. Some have been reported in people who obtained them from mink farms in Denmark. A new South African strain has the two changes seen previously and a few others.
The one in the UK has two changes and more, including eight to the spike protein, Gupta said. It is called the “studied variant” because its meaning is not yet known.
The strain was identified in south-east England in September and has been circulating in the region since then, a World Health Organization official told the BBC on Sunday.
WILL PEOPLE WHO HAD COVID-19 FROM AN OLD STRAIN BE ABLE TO RECEIVE THE NEW? Will it undermine vaccines?
Probably not, said former US Food and Drug Commissioner Scott Gottlieb on CBS’s “Face the Nation” Sunday.
“Unlikely,” Gupta agreed.
Vivek Murthy, nominee general for President-elect Joe Biden, said Sunday on NBC’s Meet the Press that there was “no reason to believe that the vaccines developed will not be effective against this virus”.
Vaccines trigger wide-ranging reactions in the immune system that go beyond those caused by the spike protein, according to several experts.
The possibility that new strains will be resistant to existing vaccines is slim, but not “non-existent,” said Dr. Moncef Slaoui, the senior scientific advisor for the US government’s vaccine distribution efforts, on CNN’s State of the Union on Sunday.
“So far, I don’t think there has been a single variant that is resistant,” he said. “It is very unlikely that this particular variant has escaped immunity in the UK.”
“I’m not worried,” Bedford wrote on Twitter, as it would likely take a lot of changes in genetic code to undermine a vaccine, not just a mutation or two. But vaccines may need refinement over time as changes accumulate and changes should be monitored more closely, he wrote.
Murthy said the new strain doesn’t change public health recommendations to wear masks, wash hands and maintain social distance.
Associate press writers John Hanna in Topeka, Kansas, and Sylvia Hui in London contributed to the coverage.
The Associated Press Department of Health and Science is supported by the Department of Science Education of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. The AP is solely responsible for all content.