The UK announced a surprise ban in London and parts of the country on Saturday. The decision was forced on the Boris Johnson government by a surge in coronavirus (Covid-19) cases. The UK is currently experiencing its third wave of infections – or a second wave that seemed to subside until it suddenly gained momentum – with the country seeing around 35,000 new infections on December 17, the highest in a day.
The UK’s sudden decision can be traced back to the discovery of a new strain of the Sars-CoV-2 virus that causes coronavirus disease and which Johnson said while imposing the lockdown was 70% more contagious than other strains of the virus. It is believed that most new cases in the country are driven by this variant, with up to 60% of cases in London being caused by it.
The London lockdown, which turns the Christmas and holiday plans of many of the city’s residents upside down, was announced late Saturday afternoon but didn’t go into effect until midnight – resulting in a large-scale exodus from city to country, something of a mystery Avoided at all times, especially when a virus pandemic rages in the city and in the country. Days before announcing the lockdown, Johnson said it might be necessary to impose one after Christmas – but apparently fear of a mutated tribe forced his hand.
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It’s not just the UK; South Africa announced on Friday that a new strain of the Sars-CoV-2 virus had been discovered in the country and that this could trigger the second wave of infections in the country. The country has seen an increase in cases since mid-November, and the 7-day average of new cases is around 70% of the peak seen in the first wave and rising.
There are some interesting similarities between the new tribes in the UK and South Africa. Both, health officials in both countries claim, seem to be spreading faster. The two strains appear to share a mutation that changes the structure of the virus’ spike protein. Health officials in both countries believe this could actually help the virus spread faster – after all, it is through the spike protein that the virus attaches to receptors in human cells. In South Africa, scientists studying the variant claim that the new strain leads to higher viral loads in patients – based on studies on swab samples.
Here’s what we know: Both of the new strains (the South African one appears to be older and more common, based on testimony from the country’s health authorities) have significant numbers of mutations, including one common (N501Y is what scientists call that) that causes the Affected spike protein. And both strains appear to be more infectious.
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Viruses mutate, so the fact that Sars-CoV-2 has mutations is neither strange nor alarming. However, these mutations could affect both the virulence and effectiveness of vaccines, and this is definitely worth investigating further.
Here’s what we don’t know: We don’t know exactly whether the new strain is more infectious. We don’t know for sure if the new strain leads to higher viral loads in patients (which in turn makes them more infectious). We don’t exactly know if the new strain is causing more severe forms of Covid-19 (initial evidence seems to suggest it, but we don’t know for sure) and is leading to more deaths. and we do not know whether the vaccines that have so far been successful against the virus will also be effective against the new strain.
That’s a lot we don’t know for sure, but that’s how science works. It will be interesting to see if the current strains of Sars-CoV-2 detected in India have any of the mutations seen in the new strain in the UK and South Africa, particularly N501Y.