New COVID-19 strain: More dangerous? Will vaccines help? Here’s everything you should know

virus chasing New coronavirus variant (Image: Canva)

Just as we were preparing to put the dreaded 2020 behind us, 2021 already seems to be sneaking up on us with more nasty surprises. A new variant of coronavirus has been discovered in the United Kingdom, leading many countries to suspend air travel to the UK. The internet is already buzzing with many questions: Is the new strain more dangerous? Will vaccines work against it? But before we hit the panic button, here is everything you need to know about the new strain of COVID-19.

What is VUI-202012/01 or the new variant of coronavirus?

The “new” strain is not really new. It was discovered in September this year in the UK. Tentatively, it has been named VUI-202012/01. It is characterised by 17 set of changes or mutations.

What is Long COVID?

How contagious is it?

According to news reports, In London, over 60% of the new cases of covid in the second week of December has been attributed to the new variant. In fact, three weeks earlier, only 28% of the new cases were “caused” by it. Hence, the panic in the UK.

What makes it different from the “regular” strain?

The new variant has a mutation in the viral genome region, encoding the spike protein, which the virus uses to bind to human receptors. It can, in theory, spread more easily among people.

Did you already have COVID-19?

Does it really spread that easily?

As mentioned before, theoretically, yes. However, while the virus is said to be associated with the recent spike in cases in southeast England, it doesn’t necessarily mean that the virus mutation is causing the rapid spread.

Correlation doesn’t mean causation. Nevertheless, there is a striking increase in the growth of the new strain.

Do viruses mutate all the time?

Viruses mutate all the time. In fact, it has come a long way from the first strain found in Wuhan, China a year ago. The most globally dominant form of the virus is D614G.

According to the British Medical Journal, “Many thousands of mutations have already arisen, but only a very small minority are likely to be important and to change the virus in an appreciable way.”

Currently, there are around 4000 mutations in the spike protein.

Is the new variant of COVID-19 more dangerous?

Currently, we don’t know. But mutations won’t necessarily make the virus more dangerous.

According to Susan Hopkins, joint medical adviser for NHS Test and Trace and Public Health England; “There is currently no evidence that this strain causes more severe illness, although it is being detected in a wide geography, especially where there are increased cases being detected.”

Virus researcher Dr Emma Hodcroft says, “Are either/both more transmissible? I don’t think we know for sure yet, but scientists in the UK seem to believe there are indicators of increased transmission in that variant. Certainly, we should be extra cautious & each do our part to break transmission chains.”

Nipah virus could strike at any time, anywhere? Yikes!

Will the vaccines work against the new strain of coronavirus?

The new strain couldn’t have picked a more inopportune moment to drop in, just when the world was celebrating vaccines.

That leaves us with this crucial question. The British Medical Journal says that the three leading vaccines are targeting the spike protein that the virus uses to bind to human receptors.

Vaccines help in producing antibodies that target many regions of the virus. A single mutation in a part of the virus, therefore, won’t stop the vaccine from being effective against its other parts.

With time, all viruses mutate and the vaccine will be altered accordingly. Flu virus mutates every year, and researchers alter the vaccine to suit it.

Luckily, SARS-CoV-2 doesn’t mutate that quickly as its flu-causing counterpart. If needed, the existing vaccines can be adjusted accordingly.

Dr Krutika Kuppalli tweeted, “Right now at ACIP a question about how the Moderna vaccine may work against the new mutant strains of #COVID19 being identified such as those in the UK. They are currently evaluating this but so far things appear okay and will do deep sequencing on breakthrough cases.”

Inputs are from the British Medical Journal.