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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.

Go deeper

Jan 29, 2021 - Health

J&J says its one-shot vaccine is 66% effective against moderate to severe COVID

Photo: Thiago Prudêncio/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

Johnson & Johnson announced Friday that its single-shot coronavirus vaccine was 66% effective in protecting against moderate to severe COVID-19 disease in Phase 3 trials, which was comprised of nearly 44,000 participants across eight countries.

Between the lines: The vaccine was 72% effective in the U.S., but only 57% effective in South Africa, where a more contagious variant has been spreading. It prevented 85% of severe infections and 100% of hospitalizations and deaths, according to the company.

Jan 30, 2021 - World

Science helps New Zealand avoid another coronavirus lockdown

New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern (L) visits a lab at Auckland University in December. Photo: Phil Walter/Getty Images

New Zealand has avoided locking down for a second time over COVID-19 community cases because of a swift, science-led response.

Why it matters: The Health Ministry said in an email to Axios Friday there's "no evidence of community transmission" despite three people testing positive after leaving managed hotel isolation. That means Kiwis can continue to visit bars, restaurants and events as much of the world remains on lockdown.

Jan 29, 2021 - Health

Ex-CDC director Tom Frieden on the next COVID-19 vaccines

Americans fortunate enough to receive COVID vaccines now, outside of clinical trials, are getting shots made by either Pfizer or Moderna. But newly released data from Novavax and Johnson & Johnson suggests that more vaccines could be on the way, with J&J's requiring a single dose.

Axios Re:Cap digs into the news and why it matters with Tom Frieden, former head of the CDC, as COVID-19 variants spread globally.