JEDDAH: A new mutant strain of the coronavirus is threatening the global fight to end the COVID-19 pandemic.
The new strain causes the same medical conditions as the original but is 70 percent more infectious. It has been identified in the UK, several other European countries, Australia and South Africa, and the British health minister said on Sunday that it was “out of control.”
The new threat emerged just as the introduction of several vaccines developed in the US, Britain and China raised hopes throughout the world that the COVID-19 pandemic could be defeated. Scientists in the UK are now studying the mutant strain to establish whether it is resistant to vaccines, but it will be at least two weeks before they have a definitive result.
However, they are optimistic. Patrick Vallance, the British government’s chief scientific adviser, said the new strain contained 23 differences, including the way the virus binds to human cells and enters cells.
Simon Clarke, associate professor in cellular microbiology at the University of Reading, said the mutation affected the “spike protein” that studs the coronavirus and gives it its name.
“If we look at the changes that those mutations make to the spike protein, which is the target for the vaccine, then we don’t think they are sufficient to change the effectiveness of the vaccine,” he said.
British scientists first discovered the new variant in a patient in September. Susan Hopkins of Public Health England said the new strain was behind a cluster of cases in Kent that spread into London and Essex, and informed the British government on Dec. 11.
Public Health England then again notified the government last Friday when modeling revealed the full seriousness of the new strain, she said.
She confirmed that the new virus strain could be 70 percent more transmissible. “I think 70 percent looks like a good number to land on at the moment,” she said. The virus had been found in all regions of England but in small numbers, she said.
Countries throughout the world began to close their borders to travelers from the UK on Sunday amid fears that the mutant strain could spread. Kuwait, Bulgaria, Ireland, Italy, Germany, Belgium and the Netherlands were the first to impose flight bans and other travel curbs. Germany has also restricted flights from South Africa.
“The COVID variant recently discovered in London is worrying and will need to be investigated by our scientists,” Italian Health Minister Roberto Speranza said.
“In the meantime we choose the path of maximum prudence.”
In the UK there was widespread anger after Prime Minister Boris Johnson reversed a previous pledge and said millions must cancel Christmas plans and stay at home from Sunday morning because of the the new virus strain.
Health Secretary Matt Hancock warned that strict lockdown measures affecting almost a third of England’s population would stay in place until vaccines were fully introduced.
“Unfortunately the new strain was out of control,” he said. “We have got to get it under control.”
The situation was “deadly serious,” Hancock said. “It’s going to be very difficult to keep it under control until we have the vaccine rolled out. This is what we face over the next couple of months.”
Oxford Street in London, usually packed with Christmas shoppers, was almost deserted on Sunday. Some passers-by said they supported the new lockdown measures.
“It was necessary to do it before and making wild promises hasn’t helped the situation at all,” said David, a 59-year-old working in insurance.
But Richard Charles, a 32-year-old service industry worker, called the move rushed. “It shouldn’t be some sort of diktat that happens overnight,” he said.