It's causing new lockdowns and travel restrictions.
A new strain of COVID-19 is causing a wave of new lockdowns in London and travel restrictions for those coming from the U.K. because some are worried that this may be an even more contagious version of the coronavirus. Experts say it's definitely something to watch out for, but it's not clear whether or not this variant is actually more transmissible—and there's no reason to think the current COVID-19 vaccines won't be effective against it.
So what exactly is different about this new strain of COVID-19? Well, this variant (also called B. 1. 1. 7.) has a few mutations, 17 to be exact. Not all of them are concerning, but a few are. The mutations that have experts a little on edge have to do with genes that encode the virus's spike protein, which is located on the surface of the virus and is the piece of the virus that helps it actually bind to human cells. (That's the first step in becoming infected.)
One of these mutations (called N501Y) may make it easier for the spike protein to bind to the receptors on our cells, Science explains. Another mutation (called 69-70del) affects the number of amino acids (the building blocks that make up a protein) in the spike protein, and variants with this mutation have been previously identified in some immunocompromised people whose bodies were unable to muster the necessary immune response to protect them from the virus.
Just having a variant with these mutations in its spike protein floating around isn't necessarily concerning on its own. But this variant accounted for a little more than 60% of new cases in London in early December, said Patrick Vallance, chief science advisor to the U.K. government, at a press conference this past weekend, which makes this strain and its mutations more worrying.
The prevalence of this strain in London suggests that this version of the virus could be driving the latest surge in coronavirus cases there, and that it might (might!) also spread more easily than previous variants. There is also some anecdotal evidence that the B. 1. 1. 7. variant, which is also suspected to be responsible for the recent COVID-19 resurgence in South Africa, can cause more severe COVID-19 symptoms.
It will take a lot more time and research to understand what, if any, effect these mutations are having on actual real-world transmission rates or disease severity. And it's important to remember in the meantime that the new variant is not an entirely new virus. It still spreads in the same way, which means that taking the same precautions (social distancing, wearing masks, washing hands, and, now, vaccination) will still be just as valuable. "This isn't a magic virus. It's a variant of a respiratory virus," virologist Ian M. Mackay, Ph.D., explained on Twitter. "So the measures that protected us from the earlier variants will protect us from this one. If we weren't taking sufficient measures before, this variant will be even more likely [to] infect you."
"If we actually follow protocol and have policies that support those protocols, a new variant that is more transmissible would be combatted just as an older variant," Kishana Taylor, Ph.D., a virologist and researcher at Carnegie Mellon University, said on Twitter. "So like worry less about mutants and more about masking and distancing and vaccination."
And there is no evidence yet that the vaccines we have now won't be effective against the new variant. "Don’t get in a panic over it. [It] will take a large amount of genetic diversity to completely make the current vaccines useless," Kizzmekia Corbett, Ph.D., an immunologist whose work has been instrumental in developing Moderna's COVID-19 vaccine, said on Twitter. "Unlike monoclonal antibody therapies, vaccines (especially those using the whole spike protein) make polyclonal antibody responses. This means that the antibodies your vaccinated body will make will be able to bind the coronavirus spike in multiple places...not just one." So the virus would have to change quite a bit more before our current vaccines became ineffective.
Still, the measures currently being implemented in the U.K. and elsewhere to prevent the spread of this strain—and the spread of COVID-19 in general—make sense under the circumstances. "Please don’t be alarmed any more than you have been through this pandemic," Corbett said. "The precautionary measures (i.e. no travel) in the UK are in line with sensible measures following a regional virus spike."
Written by Sarah Jacoby.
This article originally appeared on Self US.