New COVID-19 Variant Circling the UK

Countries across Europe are reinstating travel bans and lockdowns to combat virus.

A new strain of the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) virus, called B.1.1.7, has been recognized to be spreading across the United Kingdom. The novel variant was identified earlier this month in the county of Kent in the southeast of England. After experiencing a surge of cases, investigators and public health experts noticed that half of them were linked to one specific COVID-19 strain.

Countries around the continent, including Belgium, Italy and France, have since begun to impose temporary travel restrictions to the UK and initiating lockdowns to try and halt the spread of the new strain.

New variants of the coronavirus are nothing new, with investigators identifying around 1 to 2 accumulated mutations a month. However, B.1.1.7 seems to have acquired 17 mutations all at once, which has never been seen before. It is believed that this happened during a long period of infection in one patient, allowing the virus to go through a period of rapid evolution with multiple variants competing for advantage.

Investigators are working to see if B.1.1.7 is more proficient at human-to-human transmission and the reasons why if it is. There is concern due to the fact 8 of the mutations have been found to encode the spike protein on the viral surface. One, named N501Y, has been known to increase how tightly proteins bind to the ACE2 receptor, which is where the virus enters into human cells. Another, called 69-70del, has been demonstrated to evade the immune response in a number of immunocompromised patients.

Investigators in South Africa have sequenced genomes of COVID-19 in 3 different provinces and have identified a lineage that is separate from the UK strain but has the N501Y mutation in the spike gene. This leads investigators to believe that this strain is spreading much faster. Another worry has been raised that it can cause more severe disease, with anecdotal evidence showing it more heavily impacts younger people and those who are otherwise healthy.

There is reason to believe that this strain is already much more widely spread, with Dutch researchers finding one case in early December. While answers will most likely take months, research is being conducted to learn more about the variant.

Monitoring the virus will be key moving forward, along with picking up on events that may cause other new strains. “Whatever enabled the B.1.1.7 lineage to emerge is likely going on in other parts of the world”, Kristian Andersen, an infectious disease researcher at Scripps research said. "Will we be able to actually detect it and then follow up on it? That, to me is one of the critical things.”