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Should you be worried about new coronavirus strains?

New mutations of the covid-19 virus found in the UK and South Africa have put the world on alert. How does this development affect the pandemic and vaccines?

A sign on the M56 motorway informs drivers that all routes into France are closed at the junction with the M6 at Lower Stretton near Warrington, northwest England, on 21 December 21. (Photo by Paul ELLIS / AFP)

Several countries around the world imposed bans on travel from the UK after it reported a new mutated strain of the coronavirus. Over the weekend, UK prime minister Boris Johnson also imposed stricter guidelines and lockdowns as the Christmas and holiday season approach. By Monday, France, Hong Kong, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Ireland and other major countries in Europe had begun banning flights and travellers from Britain with immediate effect.

The Indian government, too, banned flights to and from the UK till 31 December and any passengers arriving from the UK till 22 December will have to take a mandatory RT-PCR test for covid-19.

According to an AP report, health experts in the UK and US said the strain seems to infect more easily than others, but there is no evidence yet if it is deadlier. Some reports suggested that this new variant could be 70% more transmissible.

First detected in September, this new strain of the virus has been found to be responsible for the bulk of covid-19 cases recorded in the UK in November and December. South Africa also announced the discovery of a new variant of the SARS-CoV-2 virus, which has led to a surge in the number of new cases. “The new variant, known as 501.V2, is dominant among new confirmed infections in South Africa, according to health officials and scientists leading the country’s virus strategy,” an AP report explains.

Mutating viruses, however, are not a new, or unexpected, phenomenon. A BBC report explains that this has happened before. “The virus that was first detected in Wuhan, China, is not the same one you will find in most corners of the world,” as the report puts it.

The D614G mutation emerged in Europe in February and became the globally dominant form of the virus. Another mutation, called A222V, spread across Europe and was linked to those who went for summer holidays in Spain. In November, scientists had even discovered a new variant in Denmark which had reportedly emerged from the farmed mink population. Mutations in viruses can be tricky since changes in the virus genome sometimes make it more infectious but also less severe in some cases.

For instance, earlier this year, a scientific team from Arizona State University had discovered a mutation in the covid-19 virus that was remarkably similar to the original SARS-CoV virus responsible for the 2003 SARS outbreak. “During the middle and late phases of the SARS epidemic, SARS-CoV accumulated mutations that attenuated the virus. Scientists believe that a weakened virus that causes less severe disease may have a selective advantage if it is able to spread efficiently through populations by people who are infected unknowingly,” an official release from May says. The release adds that while this mutation could provide a clue into how the virus makes people sick, it could also give a new starting point for scientists to develop antiviral drugs or formulate new vaccines.

Do the UK and South Africa strains affect the vaccination push at all?

According to a Bloomberg report, the World Health Organisation is still assessing the impact of the discovery of this new strain, but a WHO official said it could take more than a week to find out how the mutation responds to vaccines. There are currently no indications the shots won’t work. In South Africa, some of the vaccines, including the one developed by Oxford University and AstraZeneca, are undergoing clinical tests to determine whether they will offer protection against the new strain of the virus, an AP report adds.

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