Why the new coronavirus strain, discovered in the UK, is cause for worry

An emergency lockdown in London and south-east of the UK following the discovery of a new strain has caused worry across the world, with many countries, including India, suspending all flights to and from the UK.

What is the new mutation of the virus?

The new mutation, called lineage B.1.1.7, has been found to be rapidly growing for the past four weeks. The mutation is linked to the change in the spike protein, which enables the entry of the virus into human cells. This change has made the virus capable of infecting people at a much higher rate. UK’s Prime Minister Boris Johnson has said that the variant is 70 per cent more transmissible, which will make its R (reproduction) number higher.

As viruses replicate and transmit among the population, they undergo mutations. The SARS-CoV-2 genome has undergone many thousand changes since its origin in Wuhan, China in November 2019. The earliest specimens of the new mutation were found in September in London and Kent.

Why does it have doctors and the government so worried?

The new variant of the virus is capable of spreading faster and more easily. So it can infect a larger number of people, which can make countries lose the gains they have made in controlling the pandemic and lead to another wave.

There are also many unknowns about the new variant: Is it more deadly, for instance? In such circumstances, doctors are of the view that it is better to take precautions early on.

Will the vaccine work against this new strain?

As mutations occur, vaccines might need to be altered. However, with regard to the new strain, experts believe that the current vaccines will work against it. Maria Van Kerkhove, head of emerging diseases and zoonosis unit at WHO, told the BBC that current information suggests that the new variant doesn’t have any impact on the vaccines being rolled out.

What impact has it had on the UK?

The mutation has been found to be heavily concentrated in London, the south-east and eastern England. Some cases found in Denmark and Australia have also been linked to the UK, according to data from Nextstrain, which monitors the genetic codes of viral samples around the world. BBC has reported that 1,623 virus samples were identified as belonging to the B.1.1.7 lineage as on December 15.

With many European countries banning road travel to the UK, supermarket chains have warned of shortages in supply. The FTSE100, informally called the “Footsie”, a share index of the 100 companies by capital value listed on the London Stock Exchange, was down 2.9 per cent on Monday and the pound went 2.4 per cent weaker against the dollar amid new lockdown restrictions.

British supermarket chain Sainsbury told Sky News that there would be shortages on products including lettuce, salad leaves and cauliflower if transport ties with the continent are not restored quickly.

What measures is the UK taking to contain it?

With alarm spreading over the new strain, Johnson announced new tier 4 restrictions for London, the south-east and east of England. This means households are not allowed to mix, but one person is allowed to meet with one other person outside in a public space. It also entails that non-essential shops, hairdressers, and leisure and entertainment venues must close. Tier four is the most severe of restrictions in the country. It was introduced on December 19.

How can other countries stay alert?

Several countries, including France, Italy, Germany, Turkey, Romania and Croatia, have put travel bans on the UK. Canada, Iran, Israel, Saudi Arabia and now India, too, have put travel restriction to and from the UK for a limited period.

Initial analysis by major universities of UK, including universities of Edinburgh, Cambridge and Imperial College of London, said, “The rapid growth of this lineage indicates the need for enhanced genomic and epidemiological surveillance worldwide and laboratory investigations of antigenicity and infectivity.”

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