clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

There’s a new COVID-19 strain in Europe, and it’s worrying experts. Here’s what we know

A new strain of the novel coronavirus has led to a shutdown in the United Kingdom. Will it impact the vaccine?

People walk across the Millennium Bridge in London, Monday Dec. 21, 2020. Millions of people in England have learned they must cancel their Christmas get-togethers and holiday shopping trips.
People walk across the Millennium Bridge in London, Monday Dec. 21, 2020. Millions of people in England have learned they must cancel their Christmas get-togethers and holiday shopping trips.
Dominic Lipinski, Associated Press

A new strain of COVID-19 has begun to run rampant through the United Kingdom, forcing a massive lockdown for the area and raising concerns among experts about what the future of the pandemic may look like.

What’s going on?

Officials in Britain this past weekend urged alarm after they discovered a highly contagious new variant of the novel coronavirus moving through the United Kingdom, The New York Times reports.

  • A similar variant was discovered in South Africa.
  • The variant has 20 mutations, including how it locks onto human cells and infects them.
  • The changes allow the variant to spread and transmit more easily than others.

Experts said they’re not surprised by the new variant since viruses aim to survive. And “as it becomes more difficult for the pathogen to survive — because of vaccinations and growing immunity in human populations — researchers also expect the virus to gain useful mutations enabling it to spread more easily or to escape detection by the immune system,” according to The New York Times.

What was the response?

UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced a series of new lockdowns and restrictions in the UK, which were originally set to stop around Christmas, according to CNN.

  • “The spread is being driven by the new variant of the virus,” Johnson said in a press conference. “It appears to spread more easily and may be up to 70% more transmissible than the earlier strain.”

What about the vaccines?

Experts said they believe the existing vaccines for COVID-19 will fight off the new strain of the coronavirus, CNBC reports.

For example, Vin Gupta, an affiliate assistant professor from the University of Washington’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation, said that the current vaccines will stop the new variant, similar to how it stopped the old one since the new strain is similar to the old one at the genetic level.

  • “There is a strong belief here that the vaccine, as it exists today … will have effectiveness in warding off infection from this new strain in England, in addition to the old strain that we’ve been contending with for months now,” said Gupta.

What about in the U.S.?

Scientists at Walter Reed Army Institute of Research are currently researching whether the vaccines will fight off the mutated variant, according to CNN.

  • The scientists — who admit they are worried the vaccine won’t work if the virus mutates significantly — said they expect the vaccine to be sufficient.
  • Dr. Nelson Michael, director of the Center for Infectious Diseases Research at the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research, said: “It stands to reason that this mutation isn’t a threat, but you never know. We still have to be diligent and continue to look.”

Anything else to consider?

The Associated Press reports that viruses evolve as they move through populations. Some evolve more than others. This is why we have multiple flu shots each year.

And the novel coronavirus has had multiple variants and strains since it was first detected in China, so this is not overwhelmingly new.

President-elect Joe Biden’s surgeon general nominee, Vivek Murthy, told The Associated Press that the new variant doesn’t change the guidelines — wear a mask, wash your hands and watch your distancing.