Viruses circulate all the time. Most of the new versions die. Sometimes they spread without changing the behavior of the virus. At times, they trigger dramatic changes.
And the question facing scientists is now simple: does the VUI-202012/01 variant fit into this latter category? Does it represent a greater health risk? Or has the recent rapid spread through the south of England occurred because it has risen in the hands of many other victims, perhaps because they are evading Covid-19 restrictions? ?
These key questions, which were debated last week after health secretary Matt Hancock announced the new variant, were answered strongly yesterday by government chief medical officer Chris Whitty.
“As a result of the rapid new release, initial modeling data and rapidly rising frequency levels in the southeast,” he said, “the New and Emerging Respiratory Virus Risk Advisory Group (Nervtag) is now of the opinion that the new pressure dissipates faster. We have issued a warning to the World Health Organization and continue to analyze the available data to advance our understanding. ”
These analyzes involve scientists growing the new strain in laboratories, examining its antibody responses and testing its cross-reactions with Covid-19 vaccines. . In addition, health officials are now randomizing series of samples from advanced cases across the country to study their nationwide distribution and to build regional maps of its frequency. This will take at least two weeks.
The appearance of the new variant is alarming – although it should be noted that there have been several previous modifications of Covid-19. Last month, the Danish government eradicated millions of mink after it emerged that hundreds of Covid-19 cases related to Sars-CoV-2 mutations were transmitted by farmed mink. And in October, studies suggested that coronavirus differentiation derived from Spanish farm workers spread rapidly across Europe and accounted for the majority of cases in the UK.
It has not been found in all cases that these changes increased the spread of the disease. However, it is now clear that this is not the case for the VUI-202012/01 variant. What scientists now have to address is concerns about the impact of the new change – in particular whether it will lead to an increase in cases of Covid’s disease or whether it will result in fewer cases. The other big question is whether the new variant will be able to circumvent the protection afforded by the Covid-19 vaccines that are now administered across Britain.
“If the new variant were to have a major impact on the severity of disease, we would have seen that now,” said Ewan Birney, deputy general director of the European Molecular Biology Laboratory and co director of the European Institute of Bioinformatics in Cambridge.
“Hospital cases as a proportion of disease numbers would have either fallen or fallen dramatically. None occurred, so we can conclude that the impact on the number of serious cases tends to be moderate: a little more or a little less. ”
In addition, Birney said the vaccines were tested with many variations of the circulating virus. “So there is every reason to think that the vaccines will continue to work against this new pressure, but of course that needs to be proven in detail. ”
The exact location of the variant is unknown. Britain ‘s robust virus detection system may have simply been seen before other countries did. “However, it is equally likely that the changes that created this change have taken place in the UK and that is why we have seen it first,” said Birney.