Over the weekend, England's Health Security Matt Hancock announced that the United Kingdom has identified a new variant of the coronavirus that has the ability to spread more quickly than prior strains of the virus. This alarming new development led Prime Minister Boris Johnson to impose new lockdowns throughout the nation to control its spread.
How did this new strain start?
The U.K. government first announced that that researchers had identified a new coronavirus strain last Monday, stating that its spread is concentrated in the southern and eastern parts of England.
It is within a virus's nature to mutate as it continues to spread throughout a population. SARS-CoV-2 has several documented mutations found throughout its year-long known lifespan, with the majority of variations having little effect on the virus's spread or severity.
Why is this new variant unusual?
The new SARS-CoV-2 strain was identified in patient samples collected by the U.K.'s National Health Service as early as September, but became more concerning as the new variant began to turn up more often in testing samples in December.
Researchers estimate that the mutations found in the new COVID strain affect how the virus spreads, with preliminary studies showing that the new variant is more contagious. Some experts state that the new strain could be up to 70% more transmissible than other COVID strains. On a more positive note, the new variant does not appear to be more lethal than past mutations of SARS-CoV-2.
Experts worry that coronavirus vaccines like the ones developed by Pfizer
What's going on in the U.K?
Johnson issued strict Tier 4 lockdowns throughout the southern regions of the country, including London, thus reinstating stay-at-home orders, closures on non-essential businesses, and severely limiting public travel to only exercise. Johnson has not announced how long these restrictions will last.
Additionally, a growing list of over 40 nations in Europe, Asia, South America, the Caribbean and the Middle East have all announced new restrictions on travel to the U.K.
Ongoing COVID Developments
World Health Organization's Chief Scientist Soumya Swaminathan stated during a press conference on Monday that the coronavirus appears to mutate at a slower rate than the seasonal influenza.
"SARS-CoV-2 is mutating at a much slower rate than influenza," Swaminathan stated, quoted by CNBC. "And so far, even though we've seen a number of changes and a number of mutations, none have made a significant impact on either susceptibility of the virus to any of the currently used therapeutics, drugs, or the vaccine under development and our hope is that that will continue to be the case."
This new development is encouraging for ongoing vaccine efforts, for the seasonal influenza mutates so often that scientists have to develop new vaccines every year.