A more contagious variant of the coronavirus has recently emerged from England just as countries begin to roll out vaccines, sparking concern over another deadly outbreak.
United Kingdom Prime Minister Boris Johnson implemented a strict lockdown to contain the virus’s spread, as the new variant was reportedly responsible for 60 percent of new cases in London, according to England’s chief medical officers, which roughly doubled in the last week.
Johnson also said that the variant appeared to be 70 percent more contagious than other variants of the coronavirus, making it a highly transmissible form of the virus. But, the estimate is speculative and has not been confirmed by scientific experiments.
While it’s common for viruses to mutate over time, as the coronavirus has slowly mutated since the start of the pandemic, scientists find the new variant “worrisome,” according to Dr. Barry Bloom, professor of immunology and infectious diseases and former dean at the Harvard School of Public Health, since it has several mutations which can change the viruses overall behavior, helping it adapt and grow more resistant.
“What’s striking here, is there are a very large number of mutations in a virus that… has not obviously evolved from anything we know about. So getting 14 new mutations in a new variant strain, instead of one or two, is what makes this worrisome,” Bloom said.
Scientists, however, pointed out that there is no evidence that suggests the variant is more deadly or makes people sicker.
“The fact that we’re seeing this new variant is not surprising. Evolutionary pressures will continue to select for viral strains that spread with greater facility,” Dr. John Swartzberg, a professor emeritus of infectious diseases and vaccinology at the University of California-Berkeley, said in an interview via email.
The new variant has also been detected in Denmark, Belgium, the Netherlands and Australia, according to the World Health Organization, and a similar version has circulated in South Africa, revealing one of the mutations seen in the British variant.
“The evidence to date suggests it spreads with greater facility, perhaps by allowing it to enter the cells easier,” Swartzberg added. “There is no evidence that it causes more (or less) morbidity or mortality. There is also no evidence to date that suggests it will not respond to our vaccines or alter the sensitivity of our diagnostic testing.”
BioNTech chief executive Ugur Sahin said Monday that he was confident that the coronavirus vaccine developed by Pfizer and his company would be effective in combating the new variant circulating in Britain. Scientists have also echoed these remarks, but are currently researching the issue.
With coronavirus cases almost at eighty million worldwide, multiple countries have imposed restrictions or banned travelers from the U.K. to avoid a repeat of the early days of the pandemic when the infection took an explosive rampage across the globe.
Saudi Arabia declared a one-week ban on all international travel. Austria, Belgium, Bulgaria, France, Germany, Ireland, Italy and the Netherlands have all announced some type of restrictions on travel. U.K. travelers arriving to Germany were kept at airports over the weekend. Poland started suspending flights this week.
Other countries like Canada, India, Iran and Russia also announced a new round of restrictions.
But the European Commission advised European Union members to lift the temporary bans and proceed with all essential traveling, suggesting that testing or mandatory quarantines would work better.
The United States has not imposed travel restrictions involving the country, and scientists have indicated that it might be too late.
“I suspect the horse is already out of the barn,” Swartzberg said, adding that the new variant “has been circulating in Britain for a while.”
“Given the travel between these two countries, it’s likely that strain has been introduced here on multiple occasions. Still, precautions would be appropriate. Banning travel is the most draconian,” he said.
Swartzberg and Bloom offered a different approach to a travel ban that was similar to what the commission suggested on Tuesday to European Union members, like forcing people from Britain to quarantine for ten to fourteen days upon arrival into the U.S.
New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) called on the federal government to initiate restrictions, emphasizing that “right now, this variant in the U.K. is getting on a plane and flying to J.F.K.” Cuomo also noted that it might be too late, as it’s likely the variant has already infiltrated the borders of the United States.
But with record-high hospitalizations in America, this new variant is especially concerning since health care workers are overwhelmed and the quality of patient care has dwindled, as some hospital systems are at or near full capacity.
“We are approaching a hospital crisis in many states, and that means turning people away to die at home,” Bloom said. “Something I can’t believe I would ever see in the United States.”
Rachel Bucchino is a reporter at the National Interest. Her work has appeared in The Washington Post, U.S. News & World Report and The Hill.