New COVID-19 Strain in the U.K. Raises Questions on Future of Pandemic
The new potentially more contagious COVID-19 strain found in the UK is raising questions about the pandemic fight’s future. Just when good news regarding the coronavirus had reached the world—stunning breakthroughs in the development of COVID-19 vaccines at historic speeds—scientists have found a late-year mutation of the virus in the U.K.
This comes as the country has experienced a sharp increase in reported cases since the middle of December, a surge likely tied to this mutation’s higher rate of transmission than the more common strain of COVID-19. The spike also prompted Prime Minister Boris Johnson to implement much stricter lockdown measures.
Despite this alarming turn, there’s one message permeating from the health and science community: Don’t panic just yet.
WHAT WE KNOW ABOUT THE VIRUS
It’s quite easy to feel a sense of dread when reading, “the coronavirus has mutated.” According to medical experts, before diving into what exactly is known about this strain of COVID-19, it is important to note a few things.
- This mutation does not invalidate the progress seen regarding vaccine development.
- This mutation likely will not require additional mitigation practices; social distancing and mask-wearing are still the most effective ways to avoid catching this COVID-19 strain.
Virus mutations aren’t uncommon; we’ve actually seen a few mutations of this coronavirus this year alone. Typically, the mutations do nothing major to the virus’s transmissibility or severity, or they do more harm to the virus itself and actually prevent it from being contagious.
Still, this isn’t always the case, especially with COVID-19. Sometimes, a mutation does, in fact, make the virus more contagious. A study in November determined that one strain (614G) that has been very common among worldwide cases isn’t actually the strain that worked its way through China late last year.
This more recently discovered strain (B.1.1.7) is probably more contagious, as explained here. This is likely part of why the U.K. has seen the surge it has experienced over the past few weeks: This strain was detected in September and has quickly become the most common strain of the virus among U.K. cases. One particularly troubling aspect of this mutation, as mentioned here, is how much more contagious it is for children. This complicates the U.K’s plans to reopen schools safely come the new year.
Thankfully though, this strain does not appear to induce a more severe case of COVID-19. (Research is still out on confirming this.)
OTHER COUNTRIES, LEERY OF THIS NEW STRAIN, HAVE RESTRICTED TRAVEL TO AND FROM THE U.K.
Though this bad news has been delivered with some calming reassurance from the scientific community and public health leaders, countries have been quick to block travel to and from the U.K. Some 40 countries cut off air and train travel to the isles when this week began, including European countries like Ireland, Germany, Italy, and cross-Atlantic countries like Canada and Argentina, and Middle Eastern nations like Israel and Iran. France also placed a ban on travel to and from the U.K., though it was a short 48-hour freeze.
The European Union, which consists of many of the U.K.’s neighbors, has lobbied its members to undo any travel restrictions so essential travel and freight can resume. This also comes at a truly inconvenient time for both the U.K. and the E.U., as the two are rounding the corner on finalizing the terms of the former’s departure (commonly called ‘Brexit’) from the bloc of countries.
All the while, the United States has not taken the step of restricting travel with the U.K. However, Dr. Anthony Fauci explained on Tuesday that this variant of the virus is likely already present in the U.S., though the extent of its spread is uncertain.
Simultaneously, a separate new strain of the virus has been discovered in South Africa, which is also experiencing a new surge in COVID-19 cases. Several countries have similarly restricted travel here.
The body of ongoing research on COVID-19 suggests we’ll continue to see the virus mutate. The real question is whether or not it will substantially impact the overall virus’ prevalence. For now, experts urge those in the U.K. and elsewhere to continue practicing social distance measures, wear masks, and overall limit the chances of exposure.