Q&A: What do we know so far about the SARS-CoV-2 variant in the UK?
There is a lot to learn about the new variant of the SARS-CoV-2 virus that was identified in the United Kingdom, an infectious disease expert told Healio Primary Care.
“It appears this new variant may be more transmissible, although there is more information to be learned regarding its full effect,” Krutika Kuppalli, MD, an assistant professor of medicine in the infectious diseases division at the Medical University of South Carolina and a vice chair of the Infectious Diseases Society of America’s Global Health Committee, told Healio Primary Care.
The BBC reported on Dec. 22 that the variant does not appear to be more deadly than its predecessors. The news agency also quoted Ugur Sahin, the cofounder of BioNTech — which, along with Pfizer, developed the first COVID-19 vaccine authorized by the FDA — as saying a vaccine that kills the new strain of SARS-CoV-2, if needed, could be available within 6 weeks.
As the CDC monitors the situation in the U.K., Healio Primary Care asked Kuppalli, who is also an emerging leader in the biosecurity fellowship program at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, to provide more information on this new strain of the virus that causes COVID-19.
Q: What do we know so far about this new variant of the novel coronavirus?
A: Genomic data in the U.K identified a new variant called B.1.1.7, or VUI-202012/01. It has acquired 17 mutations located on the gene that encodes for the spike protein on the surface of SARS-CoV-2, which is how the virus binds and enters cells. We do not know yet the full effect of these mutations, but over the past several weeks, there has been a rapid increase in the number of COVID-19 cases in parts of England.
Q: Are coronaviruses known to change like this, and if so, could there be other undetected variants out there?
A: Yes, the coronavirus is an RNA virus, and they are known to develop mutations over time. There could be other variants out there but there are programs that look at a percentage of positive SARS-CoV-2 samples to detect things like this. We have also seen other variants throughout this epidemic.
Q: Is there any evidence that the COVID-19 vaccines that have already been developed and authorized will be less effective against it?
A: Not at this time. For now, it appears that the vaccines should continue to be effective against the SARS-CoV-2 virus. However, it is possible that over years and with the accumulation of many other mutations, this could happen. It will be important to look at cases of COVID-19 that occur in individuals who have previously had the disease and those who develop disease who are vaccinated.
Q: Will the variant alter our current approach to reduce transmission?
A: We will need to reinforce our approaches to reduce transmission with physical distancing, wearing masks, good hand hygiene and avoiding crowds. We need to decrease the overall community levels of SARS-CoV-2 and decrease the amount of circulating virus that is able to mutate.
Q: What do you advise that physicians tell their patients about the variant?
A: While the development of this variant is concerning, there is a lot we still need to learn. For now, it is important for individuals to be vigilant about their public health measures to protect themselves and loved ones against the coronavirus so we can reduce the overall rates of this disease in the community.
BBC. Coronavirus: EU tries to agree response to new UK strain. https://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-55404087. Accessed December 22, 2020.
CDC. New variant of the virus that caused COVID-19 detected. https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/transmission/variant.html. Accessed December 22, 2020.