As scary as this might sound, there is a new coronavirus strain detected in the UK and its spreading at the southern part of England which has prompted the British government to enforce a stricter lockdown measure to curb the spread and medical research experts also made it known that kids are also susceptible to the new strain which is 70% more transmissible compared to the current strain of the coronavirus.
With the Christmas festival just few days away, this bad news had disrupted the long-anticipated event while countries bordering the UK have closed their borders to keep things where they are.
Report about the coronavirus variant was first identified back in September as it was closely monitored by scientists and researchers in order to fully understand its nature and how bad it can get.
The new variant is dubbed the VOC 202012/01 (“Variant of concern”) and the number of cases reported from this strain has increased since the previous month. The strain isn’t only reported in the UK as other countries like Denmark, The Netherlands, Belgium and Australia have all reported the new strain as a preliminary study of the new strain shows that it has an unusually high 17 mutations in its genetic code which could affect its key characteristics.
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However, it’s unclear if this mutant variant of the coronavirus is more transmissible based on these genetic variations alone. “We can’t tell from the sequence that [the] set of mutations will convey some better transmissibility upon it,” says Ian Mackay, a virologist at the University of Queensland, Australia.
Boris Johnson on Saturday made it known that the virus changes its method of attack and further said that the country needs to upgrade its defense method against the virus. This statement likely sent the world into another new shock just as the case was back in January when the coronavirus was at its early stages in Wuhan, China.
One of the core models of epidemiology is the “triad,” which posits diseases spread because of the infectious agent, the host and the environment. “When you get rapid escalation [of cases], all three things are contributing to it,” says Catherine Bennett, chair in epidemiology at Deakin University, Australia.
With that said, it might be safe to assume the likelihood of the coronavirus’s ability to to move from person to person or maybe not. But as it is, its left to scientists and researchers to find out what this really is.
Viruses Mutates and that’s the fact
The actual fact we cannot escape is the fact that viruses mutate and because of this, fighting them can be difficult as the combination of drugs used to attack them initially might need to be revised in order to battle the mutation. Because of the little change to their genes, this can be a bad news for those they attack as this can increase the virus’s fitness.
Scientists have always had concerns over the fact that the SARS-CoV-2 could potentially mutate at some point and because of the fact that its still at its earliest stages, more researches needs to go into detecting how to battle it.
However, scientists still assured that there is no cause for alarm and that this kind of phenomenon isn’t unexpected as there have been thousands of mutations since the SARS-CoV-2’s genome was first sequenced back in January so this isn’t entirely a bad news after all.
“It mutates constantly as it passes through people,” says Mackay. In an attempt to simplify the process of mutation, CNET Science did an analogy which goes as follow:
Think about the virus’ genetic code as a copy of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, and your cells as photocopiers. The virus wants to make millions of copies of Harry Potter. Every time it hijacks a cell, it makes copy after copy of Harry Potter. But this process is error-prone. Sometimes entire pages are missing. Other times pages are duplicated or whole new pages are added. Most of the time this doesn’t really change the story. On occasion, it changes it completely.
If that analogy puts a relieve to you, that’s basically how cells work and why situations like cancer happen because cell duplications could be error-prone which is why there is need for the immune system to always stay alert by killing off those errors whenever they happen but now, this is a virus that have hijacked cells and using it to reproduce millions of copies of itself.
In VOC 202012/01, that chapter reads differently.
The difference here is that the new variant of the coronavirus has 8 mutations in the spike gene which includes one that is known as the N501Y which alters how effectively the SARS-CoV-2 sticks itself to the human cells.
A study was done on mice and the mutation was shown to make the virus more infectious and, in South Africa, this mutation in combination with a variety of others, is associated with increasing case numbers in the country. Then there is another mutation dubbed the 69-70del which has previously been seen in other coronavirus variants and was associated with an outbreak related to mink in Denmark.
Transmissible or not?
According to the British Prime Minister Boris Johnson in his speech on Saturday, he suggested that the variant may be up to 70% more transmissible than the old variant. This notion is based on early analysis b the UK’s New and Emerging Respiratory Virus Threats advisory Group (NERVTAG) but the data behind this figure hasn’t yet been published which instead relies solely on computer modeling.
But other scientists suggest the increasing incidence in the UK may just be down to a confluence of circumstances — luck or chance — rather than changes in the viral genome.
“Any apparent increase in transmission now could equally be due to human behavior during the Christmas period and the increase in movement and social contact associated with it,” says Raina MacIntyre, professor of global biosecurity at the University of New South Wales’ Kirby Institute.
Back in November, there was a strain of the coronavirus in Adelaide which led to the government enforcing a lockdown in the country but then there were evidences later that suggested this wasn’t more infectious or transmissible.
“This could be just another Adelaide event,” says Stuart Turville, an immunovirologist at the Kirby Institute. But he says answers will only come when scientists have had a chance to test the new variant in the lab, comparing it to previous variants and seeing how it fares. “Until you get to that point, you can’t really say that the virus is fitter.”
Where did it come from?
As research proceeds, scientists are yet to figure out where the new variant originated from but then NERVTAG suggested this might have started from a single patient who has a compromised immune system over a lengthy period.
Inside the patient, the virus and the immune system are in a constant arms race, trying to outgun each other and get the upper hand. In this environment, there’s more pressure to mutate. The persistent battle means “there’s a higher probability” mutations accumulate in the patient, Turville says.
Meanwhile the number of changes in VOC 202012/1 is going to be a challenge researchers to explain if any single mutation or combination of them can contribute to how the variant spreads or how severe it can be. “Because there’s so many different changes, it’s gonna be a hard one to really work out,” Turville says.
In order to achieve this, researchers will have to asses these changes with a number of experiments which Turville notes could take up to a few weeks by then, the test will detect if the variant is more transmissible while comparing it to the order strains in the human cells in the lab.
Transmissibility is just the tip of the viral iceberg, however.
“The kinds of mutations that scientists are a bit more worried about are the types that get around vaccines, antibodies, therapeutics — rather than increasing transmissibility,” says Alina Chan, a scientist at the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard.
As of now it is too early to know if the new variant might change how scientists will approach this or whether it will cause concerns for the vaccine which is already being approved by a number of countries while the EU recently approved the use of Pfizer vaccine.
“We’re a long way from a mutation here or a variant there, really causing us a lot of fear that our vaccine is going to fall over,” Mackay says.