British Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced on Saturday that due to the emergence of a new, fast spreading variant of the novel coronavirus, the country’s Christmas plans would have to be canceled, imposing an effective lockdown on more than 16 million people.
Johnson said that the new strain was up to 70% more transmissible than the original virus, leading him to rethink Britain’s planned easing of restrictions for the holiday.
Prof. Jacob Moran-Gilad, a medical specialist in clinical microbiology and public health from Ben-Gurion University’s School of Public Health, and a member of Israel’s Pandemic Management Team, spoke with The Jerusalem Post on Sunday, saying that while coronavirus mutations are relatively commonplace, the new mutation in the UK may be “just the tip of the iceberg.”
“While it has not yet been definitively proven that the strain is more infectious,” Moran-Gilan said, “the numbers Johnson presented on Saturday were a projection, based on data that shows a recent rise in infections in areas where this specific mutation was found.”
“Mutations in viruses are nothing new, neither are they new to COVID-19,” he said. He said that there are currently more than 1,000 known mutations to the novel coronavirus that was first found in Wuhan, most of which are inconsequential.
Both the new UK variant, and a Danish variant which recently resulted in a mass-culling of minks in the country, made changes to the virus’s spike protein, though Moran-Gilad said the two are otherwise unrelated.
“Mutations that are related to the spike protein can affect the dynamics of the disease, seeing as it is a deciding factor in the infection process. For example, the mutation might affect the ways in which the virus connects with cells in the respiratory system,” Moran-Gilan said, emphasizing that this looks like the most probable negative consequence that could arise from the new UK strain.
“That’s what doctors in England are currently most worried about. It has not yet been proven, but there is circumstantial evidence that suggests that might be the case,” he said.
A consequence of the new strain that would be less likely, according to Moran-Gilad, is a decrease in the amount of cases tests will be able to reveal.
“While the spike protein is used in diagnostic screening, testing and genome sequencing for the novel coronavirus has advanced greatly,” he told the Post. “Since every lab test looks for several target areas within the virus capable of detection, a mutation in a single protein is unlikely to lead to underdiagnosis.”
While the new mutation could potentially affect the effectiveness of a vaccine, COVID-19’s rate of mutation (around one mutation every two weeks, according to Moran-Gilad) indicates that a process like this would likely take years.
“There are new mutations to this virus all the time, most of them are inconsequential,” Moran-Gilad said. “There’s no reason to think that a specific mutation means we all wake up in the morning and suddenly see the vaccine doesn’t work. It’s not an all-or-nothing effect, and there is currently no indication that this specific mutation harms the vaccine’s effectiveness in any way.”
“Our immune system creates a wide range of antibodies to this virus, it’s not just one type of antibody. Therefore, even if there is a mutation which would potentially affect the vaccine’s effectiveness, it wouldn’t have a dramatic effect,” he added.
“The British are currently the world leaders in their rate of genetic sequencing for COVID-19 patient samples. That’s why they’re the ones that find these things. It’s very likely that what we are seeing in Britain is just the tip of the iceberg. There are most likely a lot of mutations we don’t yet know about because most of the world doesn’t consistently survey and track the mutation,” he said.
“We place the focus on Britain, because that’s where the reports are coming from, but this is probably a universal issue,” Moran-Gilad said.