By Jamie Dettmer
Several countries in Europe and the Middle East are banning air travel from Britain because of rising concerns over a mutant strain of the coronavirus that has been spreading rapidly in England this month.
The strain has turned up outside of Britain. Italy’s foreign minister said Sunday that a case has been identified in Rome. And the World Health Organization said nine cases have been detected in Denmark and one each in the Netherlands and Australia.
Ireland, Italy, Austria and Belgium joined the Netherlands in banning flights from Britain over the new coronavirus variant. Kuwait and Israel also followed suit. Meanwhile, other countries were also considering whether to impose a flight ban as the European Union met to discuss what to recommend.
British scientists have been scrambling to work out whether the mutant strain may be resistant to the crop of newly developed vaccines.
Vivek Murthy, U.S. President-elect Joe Biden’s nominee for U.S. surgeon general, said Sunday there is no change to the public health guidance: wear masks, social distance and wash hands.
“While it seems to be more easily transmissible, we do not have evidence yet that this is a more deadly virus to an individual who acquires it,” Murthy said on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”
“There’s no reason to believe that the vaccines that have been developed will not be effective against this virus, as well.”
The strain was confirmed on December 13 in the county of Kent in southern England, and initial analysis by government scientists suggests it is “growing faster than the existing variants.”
The variant was initially found in a patient in September. Genome sequencing, which took nearly a month, indicated it was a new strain, but government scientists weren’t too worried as mutations come and go. But as infections continued to surge last month and in December, government scientists realized they were dealing with a mutant that’s more transmissible.
The World Health Organization tweeted: “We’re in close contact with UK officials on the new #COVID19 virus variant. They’ll continue to share info & results of their analysis & ongoing studies. We’ll update Member States & public as we learn more about the characteristics of this virus variant & any implications.”
Speaking to Sky News Sunday, Britain’s health minister, Matt Hancock, said the new strain is out of control and urged Britons to behave as if they already have the virus, especially in London and southern and eastern England. “It [the new strain] is an enormous challenge, until we can get the vaccine rolled out to protect people. This is what we face over the next couple of months.”
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson held an unscheduled meeting of ministers Friday amid mounting alarm about the threat posed by the mutant strain, which has been named VUI-202012/01. Johnson said at a press conference Saturday there is no evidence so far to suggest vaccines will be any less effective against the new strain, but added, “There is still much we don’t know.”
He noted the new strain is up to 70% more transmissible than prior ones.
London, southeast England locked down
The British leader announced a virtual lockdown for London and the southeast of England, with people urged to stay at home. All non-essential stores are now to close, and people should not enter or leave the British capital or large parts of southeast of England. Amid the new directives, police had to be deployed to London railway stations as people crowded those stations trying to leave the city.
“We can’t continue with Christmas as planned,” said Johnson, noting that a previously announced relaxation of rules for the holidays would be reversed. In London and southern England, households now can’t mix to celebrate Christmas. Elsewhere in the country, up to three households can mix but only for Christmas Day itself.
“I must stress how complicated it is to work out, in a situation where things might be growing for other reasons, to really put your finger on that it’s actually the virus that is doing it, but the evidence is pointing in that direction,” Ewan Birney, deputy director of the European Molecular Biology Laboratory, told the BBC.
Midweek, Hancock, the health minister, said the new strain may be associated with the faster transmission of the virus in the southeast of England and London, but there was “nothing to suggest” it caused a worse disease, or that it might be resistant to vaccines that have only just received approval in Britain and the United States.
England’s chief medical officer, Chris Whitty, said Britain has alerted the World Health Organization about the fast transmissibility of the variant strain.
“There is no current evidence to suggest the new strain causes a higher mortality rate or that it affects vaccines and treatments, although urgent work is under way to confirm this,” he said in a statement.
Jeremy Farrar, a government adviser and director of the Wellcome Trust, Britain’s largest medical research endowment, warned Saturday of his concern. He tweeted: “The new strain of COVID-19 is worrying & real cause for concern & extra caution. Research is ongoing to understand more but acting urgently now is critical. There is no part of the UK & globally that should not be concerned. As in many countries, the situation is fragile.”
The new variant includes up to 23 changes, including with the spike protein, which the virus uses to enter human cells that allow it to replicate. There have been many mutations in the virus since it emerged last year in Wuhan, China, with 4,000 mutations in the protein alone. Virologists say most mutations are insignificant and part of the expected evolution of the virus, but some may lead to more efficient transmission.
According to the government’s scientific advisers, the new strain is fast becoming the dominant strain, and they say it might be present in other countries.
“Scientists are working extremely hard to work out what is going on,” Mark Walport, a member of the government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies, told The Times newspaper.
“But it does definitely seem possible that this transmits more easily. It will make the social distancing even more critical,” he added.
Government scientists say it could take two weeks for scientists to establish how the new strain reacts to vaccines, but virologists are hoping that the changes won’t diminish the efficacy of vaccines, which are designed to produce antibodies against many different parts of the spike protein.
Hospitals in England are seeing a record number of patients suffering from COVID-19, the disease triggered by the coronavirus. About 38 million people in England were under tough coronavirus restrictions before Saturday’s announcement. The new measures amount to a virtual lockdown, something Johnson had said just a few days ago he would do everything to avoid.