Dec 21, 2020 - Health

The coronavirus mutation in the U.K.: What you need to know

Moncef Slaoui, chief science adviser for Operation Warp Speed, said on Monday.
Moncef Slaoui, chief science adviser for Operation Warp Speed. Photo: Mandel Ngan/AFP via Getty Images

Researchers are closely watching whether a newly discovered mutation in the SARS-CoV-2 virus is cause for alarm as parts of Europe limited international travel this week.

Why it matters: Despite the variant appearing to be more transmissible, U.S. officials stressed in a call today that it's no more deadly and the chances it will make vaccines less effective are "extremely low."

  • The vaccine uses an immune response against several antigen molecules like antibodies, B cells or T cells around the protein, which in return would not likely be disrupted by these mutations, Moncef Slaoui, chief science adviser for Operation Warp Speed, said on Monday.
  • "The chances that one set of mutations would alter all those are I think extremely low."

The state of play: Modeling shows the new strain, which scientists are calling B.1.1.7, could be about 70% more transmissible, but that has not yet been confirmed from lab reports, UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson said Sunday.

  • Still, the new strain has sparked new lockdown measures from Johnson along with the Netherlands, Belgium, France, Hong Kong and Italy temporarily pausing flights or freights from the UK.

What they're saying: U.S. officials are in close contact with scientists in the UK, and are taking the next few weeks to isolate and cultivate the virus to better understand its transmission.

  • "Up to now, I don’t think there has been a single variant that would be resistant. This particular variant in the UK, I think, is very unlikely to have escaped the vaccine immunity," he said.

Background: The new strain was detected in September and has started to spread to other parts of Europe and South Africa, according to the European Centers for Disease and Control.

  • Researchers have constantly watched SARS-CoV-2 evolve in real time, Science reports, and were surprised when they noticed 17 mutations occur seemingly at once.
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