If the news that the new mutant strain of SARS-CoV-2 virus is spreading “like wildfire” in the UK and the accompanying sound of borders slamming around the world will keep you awake Probably not visiting the Nextstrain project website (https://nextstrain.org). Viruses like SARS-CoV-2 are constantly mutating – not on purpose or even cunningly as recent apocalyptic coverage seems to imply, but as an inevitable accidental by-product of the often flawed process of replicating the viral genome. It is these errors that create the markers that scientists use to track where different strains of the virus came from and how they spread.
Nextstrain is a collaboration between international genomic epidemiologists who, over the past year, tracked and analyzed over 75,000 sequences of the virus that were shared by scientists around the world. Hundreds of additional profiles are added to this genomic library every day, reflecting the hundreds of mutations in the virus that occurs every day.
Taken together, what the many thousands of variants of the virus examined so far tell us is dramatically conveyed in an animation on the Nextstrain website, which shows a selection of 3,611 developments of the original virus that were traced back to Wuhan in December 2019 and which are like all over the world spread the fast growing roots of a tree.
At the end of one of these roots is the strain B.1.1.7, which was first detected in a sample isolated in Great Britain on September 2nd.
Such mutations of the SARS-CoV-2 virus, which are extremely common in the natural evolution of all viruses, have been registered in over 130 countries, including the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Iraq, Iran, Israel, Oman, Pakistan and India. Over 750 new strains have been registered in the United States alone.
It is true that the new strain identified in the UK contains more mutations than most of the others – 17 in fact.
It is also true that B.1.1.7 is fast becoming the most dominant form of the virus in the UK. By mid-November it was 28 percent of all new cases in London and the south-east of England. In the week from December 9, its dominance in the capital had risen to 62 percent, in the southeast to 43 percent and in the east of England to 59 percent.
Show the sound of dozens of borders across Europe and beyond slammed to travelers from the UK. Other countries, including Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Oman, are closing their borders to all comers and suspending all commercial flights just in case.
It can be too late. The strain has also been detected in places as far as Denmark, the Netherlands and Australia. These are countries where major genome sequencing initiatives are under way and it is certain that more cases will emerge elsewhere in the world shortly.
None of the countries that are trying to seal their borders can be held responsible for acting out of caution. Saudi Arabia, for example, has successfully reduced the number of new cases every day from a high of 4,919 in June to just 168 on December 21. The last thing these countries want is an increase in the number of cases on the scale currently being observed in the UK.
In April the UK hit a high of over 5,000 cases a day, but in July the pandemic appeared to be on the run after a strict lockdown, with a low of 404 new cases and 54 deaths on June 30th. Something has gone wrong since then – on December 20, there were a staggering 36,084 new cases and 326 deaths.
The temptation, of course, is to blame the new strain of the virus, which appears to be spreading more easily than its ancestors, likely due to several mutations that appear to improve its ability to attach to and enter cells. This would surely be responsible for the UK’s increasing dominance.
However, in the spate of “Mutant Virus” stories that are now making the rounds, several important factors are overlooked. From today’s perspective, there is no evidence that this new strain of the virus is causing a more severe form of Covid-19 or leading to more hospitalizations than any other strain that has emerged. Nor is there any evidence that the new strain alters the body’s immune responses, which means it is just as susceptible to the vaccines currently in use as any other variant of SARS-CoV-2.
In other words, B.1.1.7 has not mysteriously found a way to overcome the simple but effective precautionary measures we are all so tired of now – washing hands diligently, wearing masks in public, keeping a distance from others hold and avoid gatherings of people outside our bladders.
In the UK, the public health response during the pandemic has been marred by politically motivated indecision, halftime and demoralizing U-turns. The latest was a confusing series of semi-lockdowns, which varied from region to region, and a last-minute reversal of plans largely condemned by scholars to ease restrictions on the holiday season.
The UK government’s request that schools stay open instead of returning to online learning could also prove to be a terrible mistake. So far, children have been shown to be quite resistant to SARS-CoV-2. But a prominent government adviser has now suggested that the new breed could make children “just as vulnerable as adults”.
B.1.1.7 was first discovered on September 2nd, but the number of new daily cases in the UK had increased since early July. In other words, with or without the impetus of its new variety, SARS-CoV-2 has already made a big comeback thanks to ineffective health policies in Great Britain. All that B.1.1.7 has done is to make it possible to exploit the weaknesses in the defense of the country even more effectively.
The hysteria surrounding the B.1.1.7 strain is out of place. It didn’t make SARS-CoV-2 more lethal or vaccine resistant. What it has done, however, is to highlight that even if the vaccine cavalry gallops over the horizon, the fight against this virus is far from over – and countries that drop their guard prematurely, as Britain clearly has done, are expecting it can pay a heavy price.
In consultation with the Syndication Bureau
Jonathan Gornall is a guest post. The views expressed are personal.