A new covid variant, one that is likely more contagious than previous variants, is spreading rapidly throughout the United Kingdom, forcing the UK into another lockdown. As of a few days ago, the variant has also now been detected in at least 33 countries, including the United States. Scientists all over the world are rushing to figure out how the variant, known as B.1.1.7., mutated in the first place, and how big of a threat it poses to the our current procedures for staying safe during the pandemic
The SARS-CoV-2 virus, the virus that causes COVID-19, has been mutating throughout the entire pandemic, averaging about one or two mutations a month. This is to be expected, as viruses always mutate. However, the B.1.1.7. variant acquired mutations much quicker than is normally expected.
Unfortunately, these mutations have occurred in the genetic material that controls the spike protein, a critical part of the virus that reaches out and binds to human cells, allowing it to penetrate host cells and cause infection. According to the U.K.’s chief scientific adviser, Patrick Vallance, there are 23 changes in the virus’s genetic material. This unusually large number of mutations is helping the virus spread more easily and quickly.
When B.1.1.7. was first detected last September, it rapidly took over England, pushing out other variants and quickly becoming the dominant form of the virus. Many scientists believe this rapid rise suggests that the variant is a more transmissible form of the virus.
According to British officials, this new variant may be as much as 70 percent more transmissible, while a more recent study published on December 23 suggested that the mutation may be 56 percent more contagious. Scientists are continuing to study the transmissibility of the variant by bringing B.1.1.7. into the lab to see if it is better at infecting cells and spreading between animals.
Thought scientists are still learning about B.1.1.7., the variant does not appear to cause more severe disease thus far. That is, those infected with the variant do not seem to be getting any sicker than those affected by other forms of the virus. However, though there is no evidence that the strain causes a more intense illness or leads to a higher fatality rate, faster transmission does mean more cases, which can lead to a higher hospitalization rate.
Scientists still do not know for sure if the vaccines will work as well against B.1.1.7. as they do with previous forms of the virus, but most experts believe that our current COVID-19 vaccines will likely be effective against the new variant. Because vaccines cause our immune systems to make antibodies against a big chunk of a virus, not just one small section, some antibodies will be able to target the vaccine even if it mutates.
However, microbiologists that spoke with NBC News revealed that it is possible for the virus to mutate in such a way that it could become vaccine-resistant. It’s possible that, like the flu shot, the COVID vaccine may require yearly updates.
It’s hard to say how the new variant will affect the overall course of the pandemic. In the end, how quickly the virus continues to spread will continue to depend on multiple factors, including people’s behavior. That means that the best way to protect yourself and your community against the new variant still includes wearing masks, social distancing, and avoiding big gatherings.
Resources Doucleff, M. (2020, December 22). What We Know About The New U.K. Variant Of Coronavirus – And What We Need To Find Out. Retrieved January 21, 2021, Stieb, M. (2021, January 05). New COVID Strain Spreading Across U.S.: What We Know. Retrieved January 21, 2021,