Rising a serious alarm, a new and highly contagious variant of SARS-CoV2–the virus which causes COVID-19, has been identified as the cause of the increased transmission of the disease across the United Kingdom (UK). Citing the rapid spread of the virus through London and surrounding areas, Prime Minister Boris Johnson imposed the country’s most stringent lockdown since March, with several countries, including India, closing borders
“When the virus changes its method of the attack, we must change our method of defense,” Johnson said.
The new UK variant, known as VUI–202012/01 (the first Variant Under Investigation in December 2020) or lineage B.1.1.7, was first identified in the county of Kent on September 20. Matt Hancock, the health secretary, first announced the existence of the variant on December 14; it was subsequently confirmed by Public Health England and the UK’s COVID-19 sequencing consortium.
Cases of the new variant are not only found in the UK but Italy and Australia too.
Why is the new variant concerning?
This variant includes a mutation in the ‘spike’ protein. Changes in this part of the spike protein may result in the virus becoming more infectious and spreading more easily between people. According to the UK’s Chief Medical Officer Chris Whitty, current swab tests are able to identify the new variant.
There have been changes to the spike protein – this is the key the virus uses to unlock the doorway to our body’s cells.
The change in the virus’ behavior is particularly concerning because it is rapidly replacing other versions of the virus and these mutations are very likely to infect other cells, as shown in the lab.
The new strain is considered to be 70 per cent more transmissible than the original strain. The new highly transmissible strain has shown a similar lethal effect as other variant strains but it contains key mutations, particularly in the virus receptor domain.
But the question remains if it is more dangerous than the previous strain or not. Research is underway.
Will vaccines be efficient on the new variant?
Experts say that we should be reassured that vaccines stimulate a broad antibody response to the entire spike protein, so it is anticipated that their efficacy will not be significantly hampered by mutations. This is already being tested. Currently, all these major vaccines–Pfizer, BioNTech and AstraZeneca, create an immune response for this specific mutation.
“No one should worry that there is going to be a single catastrophic mutation that suddenly renders all immunity and antibodies useless,” Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle said. “It is going to be a process that occurs over the time scale of multiple years and requires the accumulation of multiple viral mutations. It’s not going to be like an on-off switch.”
However, this variant is just the latest to show the virus is continuing to adapt as it infects more and more of us. This makes constant updates to the vaccines almost inevitable.