Changes in the new strain
The main worry is that the variant is significantly more transmissible than the original strain. It has 23 mutations in its genetic code — a relatively high number of changes — and some of these are affecting its ability to spread.
The new variant shares a critical mutation with a lineage that is exploding in transmission in South Africa — it now accounts for 80 to 90 per cent of the country’s new infections.
“We normally see 20 to 30 lineages in our samples at a given time,” said Tulio de Oliveira, a professor at the University of KwaZulu-Natal’s Nelson R. Mandela School of Medicine, in Durban, who first flagged the variant. “Now, we see only one.”
While the new variant was first seen in Britain in September, by the week of Dec. 9 in London, 62 per cent of COVID-19 cases were due to the new variant. That compared to 28 per cent of cases three weeks earlier.
Not more deadly
The U.S. Surgeon General Jerome Adams said Sunday that the new strain will not decelerate vaccine efforts.
“Right now, we have no indications that it is going to hurt our ability to continue vaccinating people or that it is any more dangerous or deadly than the strains that are currently out there and that we know about,” Adams said.
Citing data from Britain, World Health Organization officials said they had no evidence that the variant made people sicker or was more deadly than existing strains of COVID-19, although it did seem to spread more easily.
Vaccines still expected to work
Doctors at the U.S. Walter Reed Army Institute of Research are currently researching how effective the current vaccines will be on he new strain. Though there is a worry that the vaccines won’t work on a significantly mutated virus, the doctors still expect vaccines to be effective, said Dr. Nelson Michael, director of the Center for Infectious Diseases Research at the institute.
“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,” Michael said.
The WHO also doubled down on the sentiment.