A more contagious mutation of the coronavirus causes a further increase in cases in the United Kingdom, sending alarm waves around the world and triggering strict travel restrictions that could reach as far as California and the Bay Area.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson has imposed new harsh measures, saying the mutation is 70% more transmissible than existing strains, with British Health Secretary Matt Hancock saying the option is “out of control” in London and the south-east. England.
A similar strain has been detected in South Africa, accounting for 90% of infections in the country.
“We have not yet seen anything related to a new strain in the state of California,” Governor Gavin Newsom said Monday at a news briefing, but added that state officials are closely monitoring it.
Shannon Bennett, a microbiologist and head of science for the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco, said it is normal for coronaviruses to accumulate mutations over time, creating new strains.
Experts are concerned that the new strain could prove more contagious and aggressive.
“We’re worried about the unknowns,” said Dr. Mark Ghaly, California’s top health official.
Here’s what we know so far.
Q: What is this new variant of coronavirus?
A: The new variant originates in the south-east of England, has almost 20 mutations and is more contagious.
Named B.1.1.7, the strain originates in the south-east of England and has been identified in Denmark, the Netherlands and Australia, according to the World Health Organization.
Bennett said his understanding is that there have been about 20 mutations, including a couple in crucial proteins, that allow the virus to bind more strongly and enter human cells more easily.
“It’s a little more sticky than the COVID virus I’ve seen,” Ghaly said. “It seems to bind a little tighter and penetrate the human body cell more easily than the virus we have here in California.”
Microbiologists keep track of viral mutations and draw genealogy-like diagrams, Bennett said, but the changes are generally benign. The notion that this strain is more transmissible is just an assumption at the moment.
“They deduce that it might be more transmissible because more people have this strain than before, but you don’t really know if it’s more transmissible until you take it to a lab,” Bennett said.
Maria Van Kerkhove, WHO’s technical director for COVID-19, said in a press briefing on Monday that the first cases of the new variant were discovered in the UK in September.
Q: How fast does it spread?
A: Health experts in England believe that the new variant is 70% more transmissible than other strains in circulation in the UK. B.1.1.7 is responsible for 80% of current infections in London, according to Neil Ferguson of Imperial College London.
This means that someone with the new strain could infect an average of 1.5 other people, rather than an average of 1.1 for the previous coronavirus strain, according to the WHO.
Bennett said the great fear is that the virus has adapted by natural selection a way to get rid of the vaccine or avoid the immunity that some people have developed, a notion he said is unlikely.
“There weren’t enough people who were infected and had immunity either naturally or with a vaccine for this virus to choose to get rid of it,” Bennett said.
But it’s possible, she said.
“It’s something we want to pursue and it’s something we know how to pursue because we see it in the flu,” Bennett said. “We know it’s possible, but it takes a long time for a virus to prevent our immune response. So, even though this strain has evolved a few strains to elude an antibody, we have many other antibodies. It takes many years for mutations for a virus to escape our immune response, but we will have to keep an eye on it. And this virus evolves more slowly than the flu. “
Q: Will current vaccines work against mutation?
A: Experts believe that current vaccines will be effective against new strains.
The head of Operation Warp Speed, Moncef Slaoui, said it was “very unlikely” that the vaccines currently available from Pfizer and Moderna would not work against the new strain.
“I don’t think there was a single variant that was resistant to the vaccine,” Slaoui said. “We can’t rule it out, but it’s not there now.”
Bennett said the two vaccines now launched are call mRNAs, where scientists put the genetic code into a host cell, and then the host cell machine translates the genetic code into viral proteins.
“The design of this type of vaccine is much more adjustable,” she said. “You can just change the code and enter it and here it is.”
“We want to see how the virus changes in the population so that it doesn’t erode our immune response,” Bennett said. “It simply came to our notice then. We will be able to see what follows and what strains could produce an immune escape response or evolve to escape our immune response. “
Vaccines that are produced generate strong immune responses in humans, she said, and because the virus evolves slowly, immunity is likely to last a long time.
“The message at home is that all viruses evolve and accumulate mutations over time. There are many, many variants and strains that carry vision and that’s what we do. Here is a variant or strain that seems to be more common, so let’s check it in the laboratory. I’m not going to say that it’s a lot of hullabaloos or too much of a follower of anything, because it’s definitely a common strain that is worth watching, but not worth panicking about. This level of variation is fully expected. “
Q: Is this new variant more lethal?
A: Evidence to date indicates that the new variant is no more lethal or dangerous than normal coronavirus.
“So far, we do not see any increase in the severity of the disease or the clinical picture, but these studies are ongoing,” said Van Kerkhove.
She said the strain found in South Africa contains a mutation similar to the one spreading in the UK, but it is a separate variant.
Although we have seen a number of changes and a number of mutations, none have had a significant impact on the susceptibility of the virus to any of the currently used therapies, drugs or vaccines under development and it is hoped that this will continue to be the case. said WHO chief scientist Soumya Swaminathan.
Q: How do public health officials respond?
A: Johnson announced a series of stricter measures for coronavirus in the UK, while countries around the world have imposed severe travel restrictions on the country. The United States has not yet adopted national limits.
“This is an emerging situation that we are closely monitoring,” the Federal Aviation Administration said in a statement. “We will continue to work with our government partners as the situation evolves.”
Newsom said California could impose a quarantine period on travel from the UK.
“The last thing we want to do is let a new strain of COVID spread faster across the state,” Ghaly said. “We are watching this very closely.”
Q: Are the current safety measures effective against the new variant?
A: Although more contagious, coronavirus safety protocols should now be effective in slowing the spread of the new strain.
“We’ve had dozens of mutations in this SARS-CoV-2 that cause COVID-19 this year alone,” Surgeon General Jerome Adams said in an interview with Fox News on Monday. “It’s important for people to understand, because that doesn’t change what we have to do. We need to wear masks, wash our hands, keep our distance and wait for meetings, and we need to get vaccinated. Get vaccinated when they become available to us. “