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The man who was detected with the virus had no history of travel, which has raised concerns that the strain may be developing indigenously, or has been established for some time in the community where the case was discovered, Elbert County, southeast of Denver.
Although there is concern about the new variant among the scientific community, this does not come as a surprise, because it is normal that viruses mutate, although most of the mutations of the coronavirus have been seen of lesser severity. There is still no evidence to show that the new COVID-19 strain is more lethal than its other variants.
What do we know so far about the new strain of coronavirus?
People infected with the new strain of the coronavirus, identified with the denotation B.1.1.7, tend to spread the virus to more people and on average have a higher load of the virus’ genetic material in their body than people infected with other strains of the coronavirus.
The growth of the genomic data of this new strain, which is an approximation of the virus’ infection rate, is 71% higher than that of other coronavirus variants.
It’s speculated that the transmissibility of this new strain may also be increased by attaching to another variant of the virus, N501Y, probably helping it to better bind to ACE2, a host protein that allows the virus to enter the cells of the body.
It’s not yet clear whether the new strain causes more severe effects on the disease. The B.1.1.7 mutation leads to shorter duration of the expansion of the ORF8 viral protein than has been seen in other variants. Although it is still not clear what ORF8 does during the infection, some modifications of this protein have been associated with less severe symptoms of COVID-19.
It’s difficult to detail the lethality of this new strain of coronavirus alone, as the information depends largely on the stage of the disease in which the virus was detected. The study by the firm NERVTAG indicates that, according to the data collected so far, the lethality rate of the new strain of coronavirus is 4 deaths per 1000 infections.
So far, there is no evidence that Pfizer or Moderna vaccines are ineffective against the new strain of coronavirus. Even so, it is a concern that the United Kingdom variant lacks two amino acids that are targets for neutralizing antibodies, immune proteins that prevent the virus from becoming a host cell. This, among a series of other mutations in the peak protein of B.1.1.7, could help the virus to hide from some immune responses, including those induced by a vaccine. Both Pfizer and Moderna are testing their vaccines on the new virus strain.
At the time of this writing, in addition to the United States and the United Kingdom, Canada, Chile, France, Denmark, Japan, South Korea, Finland, Sweden, Spain, Switzerland, Holland, Germany, Italy, Lebanon, Singapore and Australia have detected infections with the new variant of the coronavirus. In South Africa, a strain has been detected that is also more contagious and with mutations similar to the variant in the United Kingdom.
A more contagious variant of the coronavirus is worse than a more “lethal” strain
Although authorities have called for calm as it is still unclear whether the strain is more lethal, the news itself that transmissibility is higher bodes ill for the development of the disease in the world.
As Dr. Adam Kucharski, from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine explains, “a 50% more contagious variant of SARS-CoV-2 is a much greater problem than a 50% more lethal variant.
According to Dr. Kurcharki, the infection of a 50% more lethal variant of the virus in a community of 10,000 people, assuming a mortality rate of 0.8% of those infected, would mean 193 deaths against 123 under a “current” strain of the coronavirus, one month after the initial infections.
With a strain 50% more transmissible, but maintaining the same mortality rate of 0.8%, it would mean 978 deaths after one month of propagation, infecting many more people in a faster way. In conclusion, a strain whose transmission grows exponentially can have much greater consequences than a strain that only scales the severity of symptoms.