The appearance in the United Kingdom of a new strain of COVID, much more contagious than the others, worries epidemiologists. This led several countries to suspend their flights to and from British territory this past Sunday.
A new strain
British government scientific adviser Patrick Vallance said that this new strain of SARS-CoV-2, in addition to spreading rapidly, was becoming the “dominant” form. This led to “a very strong rise” in hospital admissions in December. The new strain would have appeared in mid-September in London or Kent (southeast), according to the specialist.
“The Advisory Group on New and Emerging Respiratory Virus Threats (Nervtag) believes that this new strain may spread more rapidly,” England’s chief physician Chris Whitty said in a statement.
This idea is based on the finding of “a very strong increase in contagion cases and hospitalizations in London and the South East, compared to the rest of England, in recent days”. This was pointed out by Professor of Medicine Paul Hunter, from the University of East-Anglia, quoted on the Science Media Center website.
“This increase seems to be caused by the new strain,” he added, referring to the information provided by the health authorities. However, “nothing indicates, at the moment, that this new strain causes a higher mortality rate or that it affects vaccines and treatments. But work is being done urgently to confirm that,” adds Chris Whitty.
The information “about this new strain is very worrying,” said Professor Peter Openshaw, an immunologist at Imperial College London. Above all, because “it seems to be between 40% and 70% more transmissible”.
“This is very bad news,” said Professor John Edmunds of the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine. “It seems that this virus is much more infectious than the preceding strain.”
On his Facebook page, the French geneticist Axel Kahn recalled that, so far, “300,000 SARS-CoV-2 mutants have been sequenced in the world.” The new strain incorporates a mutation, called “N5017”, in the protein of the Coronavirus “spike”, which allows it to latch onto human cells to penetrate them.
According to Dr. Julian Tang, from the University of Leicester, “this N501Y mutation was already circulating long before, sporadically, this year outside the United Kingdom, in Australia in June-July, in the United States in July and in Brazil in April”.
“Coronaviruses mutate all the time. So it is not surprising that new variants of SARS-CoV-2 are emerging,” recalled Professor Julian Hiscox, from the University of Liverpool. “The most important thing is to try to know if this variant has properties that have an impact on human health, diagnostics and vaccines.” “The more viruses there are, and therefore more people are affected, and the more random mutations there will be, that are advantageous for the virus,” added Axel Kahn.
Suspension of flights
Confirmation of the level of transmissibility of this strain led the British authorities to order a new confinement in London and part of England. This new condition affects a total of 16 million inhabitants.
“Unfortunately the new strain was out of control. We had to regain control, it is the only way to do it, to restrict social contacts ”, declared this weekend the British Minister of Health, Matt Hancock.
The Netherlands suspended all its passenger flights from the United Kingdom on Sunday. Belgium will also suspend air and rail connections with that country. For its part, Germany is “seriously” considering taking a similar measure, which would also affect South Africa.
Italy is suspending flights with the United Kingdom, Italian Foreign Minister Luigi Di Maio announced on Sunday. “The United Kingdom launched an alert about a new form of COVID-19 that would be the result of a mutation of the virus. As a government we have a duty to protect Italians”, declared the Minister.
“For that reason, we are going to sign with the Minister of Health a decree to suspend flights to the United Kingdom,” Di Maio wrote on his Facebook account, without specifying when this measure will come into effect. Fiumicino airport, the main one in Rome, blocked boarding on flights to the United Kingdom. Meanwhile, Spain on Sunday asked Brussels for a “coordinated” response regarding flights with the United Kingdom.