Just as vaccines started offering hope to curb the COVID-19 pandemic, officials in the UK have sounded alarm bells this past weekend about what they called a fast-moving new variant of the Sars Cov-2 circulating in Britain. Reports suggest that this variant of Sars CoV-2 is extremely contagious (over 70% more infectious).
Due to the rapid spread of this new strain of virus through London and the surrounding regions (especially south-east England), the UK government has imposed the country’s most stringent measures especially in London , South and South East England.
The news of this mutated version of the virus has once again sparked global anxiety. In India, the Ministry of Civil Aviation has already suspended (temporarily) flights from the UK.
Understanding Mutation of the Virus
As part of its natural evolving process, all RNA-based viruses go through many changes in their genetic material. Besides, in such viruses, the mutation is much quicker as the proof-reading mechanism does not exist. This means that when the virus replicates its copies inside human cells, there is no mechanism to detect an error copy, which will possible result in a mutated version.
The New Strain of Coronavirus
The genome of Sars-Cov-2, in its defense or to escape the immune responses, has also gone through multiple mutations since its origins in Wuhan, China, most of which are not alarming so far.
An early analysis of this new strain (VUI 202012/01) has been published on 19th Dec’ 2020 that identifies 17 potentially important alterations.
How common is this New COVID strain?
The fact that the prevalence of this new strain has gradually been rising since October, 2020 suggests that it is a more transmissible strain. The viral load data and genomic modelling data from patients suggest that the new viral strain has become dominant variant over others and is more transmissible causing about 60% of infections in London in December, 2020.
Is the new COVID strain found only in England?
While the new strain is found across the UK, it is heavily concentrated in London and the surrounding areas (south-east England).
Instances of the same new strain – till date (21 Dec’ 2020) – have also been reported in Denmark (nine cases), Australia (two cases), Italy (one case), Netherlands (one case) and Iceland (one case).
Is the new COVID strain more dangerous?
The new COVID variant has been spreading faster compared to the original version. However, currently there is no evidence to suggest that the new strain causes severe illness.
Studies suggest that there have been instances in the past where the viruses have mutated to strains that may spread faster but resulted in milder illness. We have to wait and look at patient outcomes linked with the new strains to understand its implications better.
However, one factor could indicate a possibility of this new variant making us more sicker. In South Africa, another extraction of coronavirus has gained a particular alteration which is also found in the UK strain. This strain is spreading fast through coastal regions of South Africa and, in preliminary research, experts there have found that people infected with this variant carry an amplified viral load (a higher concentration of virus) in their upper respiratory tract. In many viral diseases, this is linked to more severe symptoms. However we are yet to have any concrete evidence that the virus causes more severe disease .
What does the spread of this new strain mean for India?
The new strain has not been found so far in India (as far as anyone knows). However, this should act as a wake-up call for those who thought that the pandemic was over and could stop taking all the necessary precautions. We cannot afford to lower our guard.
All precautions (sanitizing, masking and social distancing including avoidance of close contacts, crowded spaces and closed spaces) should be in place. Because the velocity with which the virus had spread worldwide makes it likely that this new variant will find its way to India sooner or later.
How has India Responded?
While the Union government suspended flights from the UK till the end of the year over fears of transmission of the new strain, several states in India are also taking steps to curb the transmission.
For instance, Maharashtra government plans to impose an 11 p.m. to 6 a.m. curfew across major cities till 5th Jan’ 2020 and had also mandated 14-day institutional quarantine for travellers arriving from the Middle East and Europe.
While Telangana and West Bengal Governments are preparing lists of passengers who have arrived from England in the last few weeks, the Karnataka government made a negative COVID-19 test mandatory for people who have travelled from Denmark and England.
Will the new COVID strain make the current vaccines ineffective?
It is assumed that that the new vaccines would still be effective against this new variant of coronavirus. However, scientists are currently working to confirm that. Many scientists say that as vaccines induce broad immune system responses apart from just prompting the immune system in order to make antibodies to the virus, they are still expected to work.
The vaccines made by Pfizer and Moderna that were approved in the US, create immunity to the virus that causes COVID-19 by teaching the immune systems to make antibodies to a protein called spike, which sits on the surface of the virus. The spike protein clasps onto the cells and opens a passageway. The antibodies produced in response to the vaccine sticks to the tip of this spike and stops the viruses from replicating.
While it is possible that the mutation can change the shape of the spike proteins and makes it harder for the antibodies to gain a tight grip on them, scientists right now do not think that the new variant will be able to evade the vaccines.
While symptom-wise the new COVID strain is no different from the COVID-19 virus seen till now, it has the potential to go in various directions.
However , do not get swayed by rumours. Instead, focus only on scientific evidence.
While it is not uncommon for the virus to have this kind of mutation as it is the nature of the virus to keep changing, what really needs to be studied is the number of people who have been infected and have succumbed to this strain.
We all have to be responsible in our own conduct with keeping masks on and maintaining social distancing. Just because the lockdown restrictions were removed, it doesn’t mean that we can go back to our old way of life .
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