- 1 What do we know about this new variant?
- 2 What do we not know?
- 3 If there are so many unknowns, should restrictions be tightened across the country?
- 4 If this variant is more transmissible, is current guidance on social distancing sufficient?
- 5 Given what we know about the variant, should schools reopen in January?
- 6 Should we be worried?
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A fast-spreading variant of Sars-CoV-2 – the virus that causes Covid-19 – compelled Boris Johnson to scale back his government’s “Christmas bubble” plans for England, including a “stay at home” order covering London and much of the south and east of England.
These additional restrictions on millions of people may have to remain in place for several months until vaccines have been rolled out across the UK. But what can scientists tell us so far about this variant, and should we be worried?
What do we know about this new variant?
All viruses, and indeed coronaviruses mutate all the time – so it is not unexpected that this new variant has emerged.
Dr Muge Cevik, a member of the government’s New and Emerging Respiratory Virus Threats Advisory Group (Nervtag), said that with Sars-Cov-2, more than 4,000 mutations had been observed so far, and maybe a handful had appeared to be of any significance.
Chief medical officer Chris Whitty said the new variant discovered in south-east England could be up to 70% more transmissible and could increase the R rating by 0.4 or more. Given the data so far, it does not appear to raise the risk of severe illness or mortality.
In a Nervtag summary released on Sunday, experts in the committee wrote they had “moderate confidence” that the variant demonstrates a substantial increase in transmissibility compared with other variants.
The data, however, is preliminary and based on modelling, scientists cautioned. But the results depend on the quality and quantity of data you feed it, Cevik said. “Right now, we can’t make a causal relationship, it’s only an association effect,” she said.
At the moment, the data accumulated so far is consistent with the understanding this variant is more infectious, or being able to be spread more efficiently – but what we don’t have is the actual laboratory-based confirmation of that or any idea of why it’s spreading faster, said Stuart Neil, a professor of virology at King’s College London.
A few weeks ago, this variant was associated with 10% to 15% of cases in certain areas – and then last week it jumped to roughly 60% of cases in London, he said, suggesting this data likely indicated this variant might have an intrinsic ability to spread more between individuals.
What do we not know?
What is most concerning to scientists at the moment with the variant is the change in the spike protein – the part of the virus with the spokes sticking out that allows it to infiltrate the cells in the lungs, throat and nasal cavity by interacting with a receptor called ACE-2, said Neil.
The mutation on the spike protein may enhance the virus’s ability to interact with ACE-2 better, giving it a growth advantage, he said. On the other hand, the spike protein is the bit of the virus that the vaccines are designed to develop antibodies against, so this mutation could impede the vaccine from doing its job.
“It’s something that really does need to be monitored,” he said
A big concern, Cevik said, is that it was still unclear how many factors had been driving up the transmission in recent weeks – it is likely this variant has influenced transmissibility, but even in areas of higher restrictions, high rates of transmission have been observed.
“Sometimes it comes back to the uncomfortable fact about social inequalities – lockdowns have limited effects on people who can’t work from home,” she said.
If there are so many unknowns, should restrictions be tightened across the country?
It is always difficult to make decisions based on limited data but given what we know about this variant so far, it is important to err on the side of caution, experts said.
“We may see trends, but they may not pan out later on. In this current situation I think … it’s probably too early to tell. Bu,it was a bit difficult not to act on it, especially since there was a plan for families to come together over Christmas,” Cevik said.
Prof Andrew Hayward, a professor of infectious disease epidemiology at University College London and a member of the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage), said: “London and the south east are very far ahead, but it only took them one or two weeks to really move from relatively low levels to very high levels and so it feels to me as though it’s going to be inevitable that tougher restrictions will be needed across the country.
“As usual – as always really – it’s better to go in harder earlier if you want to avoid the maximum number of deaths.”
He said the tighter restrictions were an effort to reduce transmission until as many vulnerable people as possible could be protected.
“That would buy us many more weeks in which we could get people vaccinated, and would save … in my view, tens of thousands of lives.”
We do not know enough about this variant to know its impact on existing guidance in terms of social distancing and mask-wearing, experts said.
Catherine Noakes, professor of environmental engineering for buildings at the University of Leeds and a member of Sage, said: “I think a lot of people are quite relaxed now around distancing, and we do have to remember the risk goes up the closer you get to somebody.
“We need to be taking as many steps as we can to reduce our potential exposure to it … where interactions are necessary, that we’re really rigorous in applying the measures that we’ve got.”
Given what we know about the variant, should schools reopen in January?
It is a great advantage that schools are not open at this time, said Hayward. “I think one of the questions to me is whether it’s really sensible to be going back early in January even with a staggered start for planning to get all students back to school.
Neil said: “The scientist in me says the most effective way to block virus transmission is to limit any contact between anyone that could pass the virus on. But there’s the other half of me – the parent – who sees just how potentially damaging the effect on limiting children’s development and education through closing the schools can have.
“My feeling is that the last thing you should possibly consider is closing the schools. I would, however, advocate a far more aggressive prospective testing of staff in schools going forward.”
Should we be worried?
“I think we already have enough information to know that this variant has the potential to cause a major further epidemic – worse than we had previously predicted,” Hayward said, noting that an increase in transmissibility, even given exactly the same mortality rate per person infected, would lead to many more deaths.
Noakes said: “I think over the next few months we’re going to be balancing restrictions … until we have sufficient coverage with the vaccine to be able to relax a little bit.”
Source: The Guardian
Keyword: What do we know about the fast-spreading Covid variant in UK? | Coronavirus