This is what we know about the new version of COVID-19

Reports from the UK and South Africa about a new strain of coronavirus which seem to be spreading more easily is worrying, but epidemiologists say it is unclear at this time whether it is indeed a new strain, whether it is endangering the effectiveness of vaccines or whether it could make the disease more serious.

Viruses evolve naturally as they spread through the population, some more than others. This is why a new flu vaccine is needed every year.

New variants or strains of the disease-causing coronavirus COVID-19 have been seen since it was first detected in China almost a year ago.

On Saturday, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced new restrictions due to the new strain and several countries in the UK European Union have suspended or limited flights from the UK to try to contain any spread.

Here is what is known about the situation:

What is worrying about the new strain found in England?

Health experts in the UK and the United States have said the strain appears to be spreading more easily than others, but there is still no evidence that it is more lethal.

Patrick Vallance, Chief Scientific Adviser to the British Government, noted that the strain “moves quickly and becomes the dominant variant” causing over 60% of infections in London by December.

The strain is also worrying because it has many mutations – almost two dozen – and some are in the spikey protein that the virus uses to attach and infect cells. This protein is the target of current vaccines.

“Of course I’m worried about that,” but it’s too early to know how important it will be in the long run, said Dr. Ravi Gupta, who studies viruses at Cambridge University in England. He and other researchers have posted a report on the new strain on a website that scientists use to quickly share any developments, but the document has not been officially reviewed or published in any medical or scientific journal.

How are these new strains produced?

Viruses often acquire small changes in a letter or two in the genetic alphabet simply by normal evolution. A slightly modified strain may become the most common in a country or region just because it took root there first or because “high-spread” events helped it take root.

A major concern is when a virus moves by altering the proteins on its surface to help it bypass drugs or the immune system.

“Emerging evidence” indicates that this could happen to the new coronavirus, posted on Twitter Trevor Bedford, a biologist and geneticist at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle. “We have now seen the emergence and spread of various variants” that indicate this, and some show resistance to antibody treatments, he noted.

What other strains have appeared?

In April, researchers in Sweden discovered a virus with two genetic modifications that appeared to make it almost twice as infectious, Gupta said. About 6,000 cases of this coronavirus strain have been reported worldwide, mainly in Denmark and England, he added.

Several variants of this strain have already appeared. Some of these cases were of people who were infected on mink farms in Denmark. A new strain in South Africa has two changes that have been seen before, plus some new ones.

The one in the UK has both changes and many more, including eight in spikey protein, Gupta said. It is called the “variant under investigation” because it is not yet known how significant it is.

The strain was identified in the south-east of England in September and has been circulating in the area since then, a World Health Organization official said on Sunday.

Can people who have had COVID-19 from an old strain get a new one? Will this undermine the effect of vaccines?

Probably not, Scott Gottlieb, the US Food and Drug Administration Commissioner, told CBS’s Face the Nation on Sunday.

“It’s unlikely,” Gupta agreed.

Vivek Murthy, President-elect Joe Biden’s candidate for public health director, told NBC’s “Meet the Press” on Sunday that he would not “There is no reason to believe that the vaccines that have been developed will not be effective against this virus.”.

Vaccines elicit a wide range of responses by the immune system beyond what spikey protein has, several medical experts have noted.

The possibility of new strains being resistant to existing vaccines is low, but not “non-existent,” said Dr. Moncef Slaoui, chief scientific adviser to the US government’s vaccination campaign under the State of the Union program. from CNN.

“So far, I don’t think there has been a single option that is resilient.”, he showed. “This special variant in the UK, I think, is very unlikely to have escaped the immunity offered by the vaccine.”.

Bedford agreed.

“I’m not worried” Because it would probably take many changes to the genetic code to undermine a vaccine, not just one or two mutations, Bedford posted on Twitter. But vaccines may need to be updated over time as changes build up and changes need to be monitored more closely, he wrote.

Murthy said the new strain does not involve changing the health authorities’ recommendations on wearing masks, washing hands and maintaining social distance.