Even though so many of the world’s citizens have practiced social distancing, worn masks, and not traveled to see loved ones over the holidays, the news continues to just get worse. There is a new strain of COVID-19 and it could have devastating results.
Given that this new sequence—referred to as B.1.1.7 or VUI (variant under investigation)—has been discovered in 30 countries, some state officials are urging health systems to delay follow-up vaccine shots so that more demographics can be deemed eligible to receive a prime one.
Although the mutation responsible for the variant does not seem to induce a more severe manifestation of COVID-19, it is reportedly 70% more contagious than previously reported strains.
The regions experiencing B.1.1.7 outbreaks
“This virus spreads more easily,” UK.’s chief scientific adviser, Patrick Vallance said of the new variant back in late December. “And therefore more measures are needed to keep it under control.”
According to British health officials, the most recent round of lockdowns initiated in London and Southeast England are responses to the new strain, which experts suspect may be the region of its origin. France, Spain, Italy, and other neighboring European nations have ordered UK travel bans in kind.
The US is among the countries being impacted by B.1.1.7, and as of the time of this writing, five states have reported confirmed cases.
Below are the five states experiencing B.1.1.7 outbreaks, in the approximate order in which they were documented to begin doing so:
- Colorado: The Colorado Department of Public Health reported that a man from Elbert County had tested positive for B.1.1.7 on December 30th.
- California: San Diego County reported its first case around the same time as the one reported in Colorado. There are currently six patient samples carrying the new UK strain in California.
- Florida: The Florida Department of Health was the next health system to report a confirmed B.1.1.7 strain after a Martin County man received a positive test result.
- New York: On Monday, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced the state’s first incidence of the U.K. strain in a man from Saratoga Springs.
- Georgia: The Georgia Department of Public Health revealed that an 18-year-old man had tested positive for B.1.1.7 yesterday, January 5th.
A sizeable majority of the patients indexed above had no recent travel history at the time of their positive diagnosis. This is significant because, as previously stated, the new strain is theorized to have originated in the UK.
In any case, academicians are forecasting B.1.1.7 to appear more densely around the world sooner rather than later.
The reason B.1.1.7 is so contagious
“The new variant of the severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus-2 (SARS-CoV-2) detected in England replicates more than two times faster than the earlier strains according to new research. This replication advantage promises to make it the dominant global variant very shortly,” Dr. Liji Thomas, MD reports.
“It was on September 20, 2020, that scientists first detected the first two genomes that are now labeled as the novel SARS‐CoV‐2 Variant Under Investigation (VUI)‐202012/01, also known as the B.1.1.7 lineage. The next 30 days saw the exponential growth of the lineage, which comprised over 1/3 of all SARS-CoV-2 sequences in England in the first half of December.”
B.1.1.7’s replicative advantage appears to be multifaceted. In addition to the mechanisms explained by Dr. Thomas, it is said to be more transmissible because it enhances the spike protein epicentral to the novel coronavirus’s replication. Additionally, 23 advantageous alteration’s in the virus’s genetic material are responsible for its increased transmission rate among the general public.
“Viruses that encode their genome in RNA, such as SARS-CoV-2, HIV and influenza, tend to pick up mutations quickly as they are copied inside their hosts, because enzymes that copy RNA are prone to making errors,” medical journalist, Ewen Callaway told the Intelligencer in this December.
Primary risk factors for B.1.1.7
Unfortunately, the new UK coronavirus strain is developing quicker than experts can reason its pathology. There are enough consistent elements to draw some conclusions, however.
According to a new study conducted by researchers at the Imperial College London, populations under the age of 20 account for the largest percent of B.1.1.7 cases thus far.
“The SARS-CoV-2 lineage B.1.1.7, now designated Variant of Concern 202012/01 (VOC) by Public Health England, originated in the UK in late Summer to early Autumn 2020. We examine epidemiological evidence for this VOC having a transmission advantage from several perspectives,” the authors wrote in the new paper.
“Available SGTF data (S-gene target failures ) indicate a shift in the age composition of reported cases, with a larger share of under 20-year-olds among reported VOC than non-VOC cases.”
The authors have gone on to express concern about higher transmissibility among young children, amid national orders to re-open schools.
“These analyses, which have informed UK government planning in recent weeks, show that the new variant of concern, B.1.1.7, has substantially higher transmissibility than previous SARS-CoV-2 viruses circulating in the U.K.,” said Professor Neil Ferguson, a scientist at Imperial College London and one of the new study’s authors in a media release. “This will make control more difficult and further accentuates the urgency of rolling out vaccination as quickly as possible.
Further research is ongoing on the specific nature of any changes in how the virus affects this age group,”
So far, data does not suggest that B.1.1.7 will be more resistant to vaccination or targeted therapeutics, even if health measures will need to amplify to suppress case numbers before the general public is permitted inoculation.
“Our working assumption from all the scientists is that the vaccine response should be adequate for this virus,” Vallance concluded in a statement.
“All signs are leading to an even more deadly pandemic than scientists first predicted. Epidemiologist Adam Kucharski, associate professor at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, told MarketWatch, “We should expect, without further action, that as the new strain takes hold, we will see an additional 10 million infections in the U.S. between now and end of February and during that time, we could easily see an additional 100,000 to 150,000 deaths.”