A highly contagious new variant of the coronavirus discovered in the United Kingdom—believed to be 70 percent more transmissible than the original strain of the disease—is driving countries to block all travel from the country.
News of the strain also forced Prime Minister Boris Johnson to cancel plans to allow families to see each other over the holiday period, as the government warned that the ongoing pandemic is now “out of control.”
More than sixteen million Britons are now under lockdown after new restrictions came into force in London and southeast England. According to the latest data from Johns Hopkins University, the United Kingdom has seen at least two million infections and sixty-seven thousand deaths over the ten-month-long pandemic.
Canada announced a travel ban from midnight Sunday for at least seventy-two hours, while in South America, Argentina, Chile, and Colombia have all suspended direct flights to and from the country.
Hong Kong became the first place in Asia to restrict British travelers, and in the Middle East, UK flights were barred in Iran, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Israel. And in Europe, France, Germany, Italy, Ireland, and the Netherlands have all put in place similar restrictions.
The WHO on Monday said that the coronavirus is mutating “at a much slower rate” than the seasonal influenza.
“So far, even though we’ve seen a number of changes and a number of mutations, none has made a significant impact on either the susceptibility of the virus to any of the currently used therapeutics, drugs, or the vaccines under development, and one hopes that that will continue to be the case,” WHO chief scientist Soumya Swaminathan said Monday in a press briefing.
UK officials have also asserted that the newly rolled out coronavirus vaccines appear to be just as effective against the new strain—but did caution that more research is needed.
England’s Chief Medical Officer Chris Whitty and Chief Scientific Adviser Patrick Vallance said that there was no evidence to suggest that the new virus strain is more deadly. Whitty did warn, however, that the virus “can spread more quickly” and was responsible for 60 percent of new infections in the capital city, which have nearly doubled within the past week.
“Given that we’re entering a period of inevitable mixing, I think there will be some increases in numbers over the next few weeks,” Vallance said in a press briefing Monday.
Dr. Mike Ryan, executive director of the WHO’s health emergencies program, added that it was still unclear whether the surge in transmission rates in the United Kingdom is due to the mutation or human behavior.
Ethen Kim Lieser is a Minneapolis-based Science and Tech Editor who has held posts at Google, The Korea Herald, Lincoln Journal Star, AsianWeek, and Arirang TV. Follow or contact him on LinkedIn.