By Asquith Williams
In the fall of 2020, a new and more infectious virus strain of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, was discovered in the UK. This strain is referred to as the B.1.1.7 strain. It spreads more easily and quickly than the original strain of the virus. This new virus strain has been found in more than 30 countries, including Canada and the U.S.
Viruses mutate all the time, so it is not surprising that a new strain of this coronavirus has been discovered. While scientists continue to study the new virus strain (and others still emerging), our understanding of the variants will evolve. Here is what we know about the new variant of the virus at this time:
Current infection prevention measures are still effective against variants. The good news about these new, more transmissible virus strains is that experts say that current prevention measures will continue to control the spread of all strains of the virus. Experts in public health agree that social distancing, mask wearing, hand washing and increased cleaning and disinfecting of surfaces are effective against the new strains of the virus.
The new variants are more transmissible. The U.K. variant has several mutations that affect the “spike protein” on the virus surface that attaches to human cells. This mutation makes the virus better able to bind to receptors on cells, making it more transmissible. Scientists in the U.K. estimate that the new variant is 40-70% more infectious based on analysis of affected populations in Britain.
The new variants are not more lethal. There is no evidence to suggest that this strain of the virus is more lethal or makes patients more sick. Because it is more transmissible, more people may end up in the hospitals and it may lead to higher death rates. That is not an indication that the variant causes more severe sickness or lethality in patients.
The new variants affect younger people. The B.1.1.7 variant infects a higher proportion of people under the age of 20, which may have implications for social distancing at schools and universities.
Vaccines should still be effective against the new variant. Experts believe that the current vaccines will be effective against the B.1.1.7. strain of the virus.
The U.K. strain is not the only variant. Recently, another new strain of the virus was identified in South Africa. This strain (B.1.351) is still being studied and tracked by scientists. Like B.1.1.7, B.1.351 appears to spread more easily and quickly but is not more severe. Scientists are still studying the South African variant to make a determination on vaccine efficacy at this time.
epidemiological and genetic data (Full report from Imperial College London)