New Coronavirus Strain In UK

New coronavirus strain in UK

Why in News?

  • India suspended all flights from and to the UK until December 31, amid concerns about a new variant of SARS-CoV-2 that is “spreading & growing rapidly” there. Several other countries, too, have suspended UK flights and imposed travel restrictions.

What are these concerns leading to travel restrictions?

  • Recently, the new SARS-CoV-2 variant was revealed to be the reason behind the rapid surge in Covid-19 cases in South and East England.
  • It is being referred to as VUI (Variant Under Investigation) 202012/01, or the B.1.1.7 lineage.
  • It is not the first new variant of the pandemic virus to emerge, but is said to be up to 70% more transmissible than the previously dominant strain in the United Kingdom.

What is the variant like?

  • The variant is the result of multiple mutations in the spike protein of the novel coronavirus SARS-CoV-2, as well as mutations in other genomic regions of the RNA virus.
  • Preliminary analysis suggests that it is more transmissible than previously circulating variants.
  • The variant was identified in genomic surveillance by COVID-19 Genomics UK (COG-UK), a consortium that analyses genome sequencing data from the UK.
  • COG-UK identified one of these mutations as “N501Y”, in an area of the spike protein that binds to a key protein in the human cell, the ACE2 receptor.
  • This was an indication that the alterations may, theoretically, result in the virus becoming more infectious.

Are the concers justified?

  • Most scientists say yes.
  • The new variant has rapidly become the dominant strain in cases of COVID-19 in parts of southern England, and has been linked to an increase in hospitalisation rates, especially in London and in the adjacent county of Kent.
  • While it was first seen in Britain in September, by the week of December 9 in London, 62% of COVID-19 cases were due to the new variant. That compared to 28% of cases three weeks earlier.

But why is it ‘extremely concerning’?

  • The main worry is that the variant is significantly more transmissible than the original strain.
  • It has 23 mutations in its genetic code — a relatively high number of changes — and some of these are affecting its ability to spread.
  • Scientists say it is about 40%-70% more transmissible.
  • As per U.K. government, it could increase the reproduction “R” rate by 0.4.

Will COVID-19 vaccines protect against this variant?

  • There’s no evidence that vaccines currently being deployed in the U.K. — made by Pfizer and BioNtech — or other COVID-19 shots in development will not protect against this variant.
  • COVID-19 vaccines appeared to be adequate in generating an immune response to the variant of the coronavirus.

Does the new variant affect testing?

  • To some extent, yes.
  • One of the mutations in the new variant affects one of three genomic targets used by some PCR tests.
  • This means that in those tests, that target area, or “channel”, would come up negative.
  • Since PCR tests generally detect more than one gene target, however, a mutation in the spike protein only partly affects the test, reducing that risk of false negative results.

Are there other significant SARS-CoV-2 variants?

  • Strains of the COVID-19-causing virus have emerged in recent months in South Africa, Spain, Denmark and other countries that have also raised concern.
  • However none, so far, has been found to contain mutations that make it more deadly, or more likely to be able to evade vaccines or treatments.