The new strain of SARS-CoV-2 is becoming dominant as it spreads faster and causes increased hospitalizations in the UK, but there is no evidence that it is more lethal.
The appearance in the United Kingdom of a new strain of coronavirus, much more contagious than the others, worries epidemiologists and has led several countries to suspend their flights from the British territory this Sunday.
So far it is known that:
It spreads faster and becomes dominant
It has led to an increase in infections in London and hospitalizations
The mutation appeared in mid-September, London or Kent
To date, nothing indicates that it causes a higher mortality rate or affects vaccines and treatments.
The new strain incorporates a mutation, called “N5017”, into the crown protein “spicules”, which allows it to cling to human cells to penetrate them.
A new strain
The British government’s scientific adviser, Patrick Vallance, said on Saturday that this new variant of SARS-CoV-2, in addition to its rapid spread, is becoming the “dominant” form, leading to a “very strong increase” in hospital admissions in December.
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The new strain would have appeared in mid-September in London or Kent (southeast), according to him.
“The Advisory Group on New and Emerging Respiratory Virus Threats (NERVTAG) believes that this new strain can spread more quickly,” England Chief Medical Officer Chris Whitty said in a statement.
This idea is based on the finding of “a very strong increase in cases of contagion and hospitalizations in London and the south-east, compared to the rest of England in recent days,” says medical professor Paul Hunter of the University of East Anglia. quoted on the Science Media Center website.
“This increase appears to be caused by the new strain,” he added, referring to information provided by health authorities.
However, “there is no indication at this time that this new strain is causing a higher mortality rate or affecting vaccines and treatments, but urgent work is being done to confirm this,” adds Chris Whitty.
The information “about this new strain is very worrying,” said Professor Peter Openshaw, an immunologist at Imperial College London, quoted by the Science Media Center. Above all, because “it seems to be 40% and 70% more transmissible.”
“This is very bad news,” said John Edmunds of the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine. It seems that this virus is much more infectious than the previous strain.
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On his Facebook page, French geneticist Axel Kahn recalled that, so far, “300,000 SARS-CoV-2 mutants have been sequenced worldwide.”
The new strain incorporates a mutation, called “N5017”, into the “peak” coronavirus protein, which allows it to block human cells from penetrating them.
According to Dr. Julian Tang of the University of Leicester, “this N501Y mutation was already circulating long ago, sporadically, this year outside the United Kingdom, in Australia in June-July, in the United States in July and in Brazil in April.”
“Coronaviruses move all the time, so it’s no surprise that new variants of SARS-CoV-2 are appearing,” said Professor Julian Hiscox of the University of Liverpool. “The most important thing is to try to know if this variant has properties that affect human health, diagnosis and vaccines.”
“The more viruses there are and therefore the more people affected, the more random mutations there will be,” which are “beneficial to the virus,” Axel Kahn added.
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), in addition to “preliminary indications that the variant could be more contagious”, the strain in question “could also affect the effectiveness of diagnostic methods”, yes, “according to preliminary information”.
However, “there is no evidence of any change in the severity of the disease”, although this question is also being investigated.
Will vaccines be effective?
Ewan Birney, deputy director general of the European Molecular Biology Laboratory and co-director of the European Institute of Bioinformatics in Cambridge, told The Guardian that vaccines have been tested with many variants of the virus in circulation, “so there is reason to believe that vaccines will work further against this new strain, although obviously they need to be thoroughly tested. “
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Most coronavirus vaccines target the protein known as the “peak” or “peak” that the virus uses to attach to human cells. Vaccines prepare the body to detect spike proteins so that the immune system can detect the virus. However, if the protein spike moves, the body may not recognize the virus and vaccines may be ineffective.
Professor Calum Semple, of the University of Liverpool, explained to The Telegraph that “some of the mutations appear in the key that the virus uses to unlock cells. And we see that with the flu every year and that’s why the flu vaccine has to change every year. “
He added: “I would expect the vaccine to continue to be reasonably effective, as it is currently 95% effective. Even if we decrease a few percentage points, it will still be good enough and much better than many other vaccines on the market. “
The specialist added optimism: “The good news is that the new vaccines are essentially like the emails we send to the immune system and are very easy to adjust. So if we know it has changed very easily, we just need to edit that email, change a word or two and then the vaccine that will be ready in six or eight weeks after that will be competent and better targeted to the new strain.
For their part, European experts said on Sunday that vaccines are effective against the mutant strain detected in the United Kingdom. “For all we know so far and after discussions between experts from European authorities, the new variant of the virus” has no impact on vaccines “which remain” just as effective, “he said. German Health Minister Jens Spahn on the public television station ZDF.
“It would be very good news,” added the minister, whose country currently holds the rotating presidency of the European Union.
Suspension of flights
Confirmation of the level of transmissibility of this strain led the British authorities to decree a new closure in London and part of England, affecting a total of 16 million inhabitants.
The WHO urged its members in Europe to “tighten control”. Outside the UK, nine cases have been detected in Denmark, one in the Netherlands and one in Australia, according to the WHO.
For its part, the European Center for Disease Control (ECDC), which includes around thirty countries, including EU members and the United Kingdom, has not “ruled out” the fact that the variant is already circulating outside the UK.
After the Netherlands and Belgium, which suspended all passenger flights in the United Kingdom on Sunday, other countries such as Italy, Romania and Germany also announced that they would temporarily cease air connections.
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However, this list is not exhaustive, as many European governments are studying the possibility of adopting similar measures.
In addition, Berlin is preparing restrictions on air connections to South Africa, where the same strain of the virus has been detected.
Belgium announced on Monday that the coronavirus variant identified in the United Kingdom had been circulating in Belgium for at least a month, joined by the Netherlands and Italy, which also announced that they had detected that strain.
“This variant is not limited to the United Kingdom, it has been detected in other parts of the world, including the Netherlands and Belgium,” Yves Van Laethem, a spokesman for the technical team against, said at a news conference on Monday. coronavirus.
The virologist added that “there are currently 4 known cases in Belgium and that the detection was made a month ago”.
“It is possible that more cases are circulating in our country and in other countries in continental Europe,” Van Laethem added.
The virologist recalled that there is evidence of this mutation “since September” and that it currently represents “60% of new infections in the UK”.
“There are other variants circulating in our country and in other countries (…). It is perfectly normal for the variants to appear “and” eventually become dominant, “added Van Laethem, who indicated that it is not known whether the new variant will be more easily transmitted and” we still have to wait to have a certain amount of data to see if it really is more contagious. “
“In any case, nothing shows us that it is more violent, more aggressive or more dangerous for our health. There is no evidence that the vaccines prevent us from giving immunity against Covid marked with that variant, “he added.
The Belgian expert attributed the fact that the variant was identified in the United Kingdom to the fact that the country has “one of the most effective and comprehensive genetic surveillance and research programs in the world”, which allows them to analyze “systematically between 5 and 10% of evidence to know its genetic composition ”.
“Many other countries are much more limited in the percentage of samples they study in depth,” said Van Laethem, who stressed that the UK is not the only place where infections are growing significantly, which is also the case in the Netherlands. , Denmark, the Czech Republic and Slovakia. .
In any case, he recommended “not to travel and to limit travel as much as possible”.
Belgium, like Germany, France, the Netherlands, Italy or Austria, Canada or Israel, announced on Sunday that it was temporarily closing air and rail connections with the United Kingdom for at least 24 hours due to the new coronavirus variant detected in that country. .