London (CNN) – The UK has identified a new potentially more contagious variant of coronavirus linked to a recent increase in cases in England.
The new mutation is called VUI-202012/01, the first “investigative variant” in the UK in December 2020. While scientists are looking for more information about the variant, its impact is already being felt and dozens of countries have imposed restrictions. travelers from the UK.
This is what you should know.
What is a variant and why are officials concerned?
A variant occurs when the genetic structure of a virus changes. All viruses move over time, and new variants are common, even for the new coronavirus.
Like other variants, it has a genetic footprint that makes it easy to trace and is now widespread in the south-east of England. That alone does not necessarily mean that a variant is more contagious or dangerous.
But scientists advising the British government estimate that this could spread by up to 70% more than others. Peter Horby, chair of the New and Emerging Respiratory Virus Threat Advisory Group (NERVTAG), said on Monday that experts “are now very confident that this variant has a transmission advantage” over other variants.
England Medical Director Chris Whitty said the variant contained 23 changes, including 17 “non-synonymous” key mutations.
“These  these are the ones that change the protein sequence of one of the viral genes, “said Jeffrey Barrett, a covid-19 statistical geneticist at the Wellcome Sanger Institute in the United Kingdom, according to the Science Media Center.
The World Health Organization (WHO) said on Tuesday that the mutations “may affect the transmissibility of the virus to humans”, although it added that more laboratory research is needed.
NERVTAG scientist Neil Ferguson said on Monday that the variant could be more infectious for children. There is an indication that [la variante] “He has a greater tendency to infect children,” he told a news conference organized by the Science Media Center (SMC), although he warned that more data was needed. Severe disease due to covid-19 remains relatively rare in children.
The findings have immediate implications for virus control. A higher number of cases could put even more pressure on hospitals and health workers, as it enters an already particularly difficult winter period and will eventually lead to more deaths.
Where did it come from and how was it established?
The new variant is believed to have come from the south-east of England, according to the WHO. Public Health England (PHE) says the downgrade, using genetic evidence, suggests the variant first appeared in England in September. It then circulated at very low levels until mid-November.
“The increase in cases related to the new variant came to light for the first time at the end of November, when PHE was investigating why infection rates in Kent (south-east England) were not falling despite national restrictions. Then I discovered a group related to this variant that was spreading rapidly in London and Essex “, said PHE.
But Sharon Peacock, a professor of public health and microbiology at Cambridge University, said scientists do not know if the mutation originated in the south-east of England or if it was introduced there from elsewhere.
At a news conference on Tuesday, Peacock also praised the power of the UK’s genetic surveillance operation. «If it is found [una variante] anywhere, you will probably find yourself here first, ”he said. And if this happens in places that have no sequence, it will not be found at all unless they are used [otros métodos]».
Whitty said on Saturday that the variant was responsible for 60% of new infections in London, which have almost doubled in just the last week.
Some experts have suggested that this new variant could have been amplified due to an over-propagation event, which means that the current increase in cases could also have been caused by human behavior.
“When we started seeing this huge increase, it could have been for many things. Could have been [debido a] behavioral changes, “Judith Breuer, a professor of virology at UCL, said Tuesday.
«[Pero ahora] it is very clear that there is a significant increase in the prevalence of this variant and that this is probably due to the biological characteristics of the variant and, indeed, the increased transmissibility. ‘
Which countries have been affected?
The variant has already spread globally. In addition to the United Kingdom, the variant was also detected in Denmark, Belgium, the Netherlands and Australia, according to the WHO.
Australia has identified two cases of the variant in a quarantined area of Sydney, and Italy has also identified a patient infected with the variant.
A similar but separate variant has been identified in South Africa, where scientists say it is spreading rapidly along the country’s coastal areas.
Is it the deadliest new option?
So far, there is no evidence to suggest that the new variant is more deadly, according to Whitty and the WHO, although it is too early to tell.
Several experts pointed out that in some cases, virus mutations that increase transmissibility are accompanied by a decrease in virulence and mortality rates.
“As viruses are transmitted, those that allow the greatest virological” success “can be selected, which changes the properties of the virus over time. This generally leads to higher transmission and lower virulence, ”Martin Hibberd, a professor of emerging infectious diseases at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, told SMC.
Will vaccines developed against this variant work?
There are still no signs that current pioneering vaccines will not work against this new variant, experts and pharmacists said.
The companies behind the first two vaccines licensed in the US, Pfizer / BioNTech and Moderna, are testing their vaccines to see if they are effective against the variant.
The coronavirus has moved forward and these companies claim that their vaccines have worked against other variations of the virus.
BioNTech CEO Ugur Sahin said he has “scientific confidence” that the current Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine could work against the new variant, but full data will be available in two weeks.
Some US scientists have said that this new variant could, to a small extent, undermine the effectiveness of vaccines.
Trevor Bedford, an associate professor in the Division of Vaccines and Infectious Diseases at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, said: “You can imagine a modest impact on the effectiveness of the vaccine, which would not be good, but I don’t think the vaccine will win.”
Bedford explained that the variant could reduce the effectiveness of the Pfizer / BioNTech vaccine, which is 95%, but with a “modest effect, not a dramatic effect”.
Sahin, from BioNTech, said that the new option could force countries to vaccinate more populations, raising the bar for herd immunity.
«[Sobre] The issue of herd immunity is always about 60-70%, “he told a news conference on Tuesday.” But if the virus becomes more effective in infecting people, we may even need a high vaccination rate to to ensure that normal life can go on without interruption.
What measures are being taken to contain the variant?
Large areas of England, including London and the South East, are now under strict level 4 restrictions covid-19, and government health experts have suggested that additional restrictions may be needed to reject this option.
Dozens of countries in Europe, the Middle East and the Americas have also announced travel bans for the UK or new testing and quarantine requirements for arrivals in the UK.
The White House plans to ask travelers in the UK to take a negative coronavirus test before arriving in the United States, two administration officials told CNN.
In a press release on Tuesday, the WHO issued a reminder of the basic measures to reduce the transmission of the virus: avoid close contact with infected people, wash your hands frequently and wear a mask.