What to know about the new coronavirus mutation

The first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine given in the United States.
The first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine given in the United States.
Scott Heins/Office of Governor Andrew M. Cuomo
The first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine given in the United States.

What to know about the new coronavirus mutation

It appears to be more transmissible, but it’s unclear if it’s different enough to be unaffected by existing vaccines.
December 21, 2020

Gov. Andrew Cuomo is warning that the federal government is repeating its past mistakes by not acting quickly enough to confront the spread of a new, more infectious variant of the coronavirus. “Right now, this variant from the U.K. is getting on a plane and flying to J.F.K.,” Cuomo told reporters Sunday. “Doing nothing is negligent.”

Scientists say that 5% of recent cases in Europe are tied to the mutated coronavirus. Each passing day makes it more likely that the variant, which has not yet been detected in the U.S., will spread here. “This is what happened in the spring,” said Cuomo, who is calling on the federal government to either test passengers arriving from the U.K. or ban flights from the country. “It’s serious,” Cuomo told reporters Monday. “No action is just not a viable option for us in New York.” British Airways has already agreed to the governor’s request to require travelers to show a negative coronavirus test before they board flights to New York.

Some European countries are already restricting travel from the U.K., where the emergence of the mutated virus has triggered a tightening of lockdown measures in England. President Donald Trump, however, has yet to announce any new public health measures despite worries of how a more infectious coronavirus might give the pandemic new life just as the vaccine distribution process begins.

This new variant could be as much as 70% more transmissible than other forms of the coronavirus, according to a Dec. 20 threat assessment from the European Union. “There is no indication at this point of increased infection severity associated with the new variant,” according to the report, which added that cases have been identified in Denmark, the Netherlands and possibly Belgium.

While the new variant could make the ongoing surge of COVID-19 cases even worse than expected in the coming months, scientists have yet to definitely answer several important questions about this new variant.

New variant can more easily infect human cells

The new variant of the coronavirus contains several mutations that appear to make it easier for protein spikes on the surface of the coronavirus to poke inside human cells and reproduce. The correlation between the prevalence of the variant in southern England and a recent surge of cases there suggest these mutations are helping the coronavirus spread more easily. Recent research in mice also backs up that idea.

While this means that the new variant could boost the virus’s reproduction rate, viral mutations happen all the time. “It is premature to jump to conclusions about the new virus variant identified in the U.K.,” said Dr. Wafaa El-Sadr, a professor of epidemiology at the Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health. “This will require careful scientific research to link the rise in (the) number of COVID-19 cases in the U.K. to the virus being more transmissible.”

Containing the new variant will not be easy

Public health officials in the European Union have six recommendations for containing the spread of the coronavirus. This includes asking officials to track the spread of the variant, isolate confirmed cases and leveraging current testing to detect its prevalence. Experts say the best way to keep it from getting out of control, however, might not depend so much on new travel bans or advanced biotech, but old-fashioned public health measures like wearing masks and social distancing. “The importance of strict adherence to non-pharmaceutical interventions according to national policies needs to be communicated to the public, and in particular guidance on the avoidance of non-essential travel and social activities should be stressed,” reads the European Union assessment.

A true threat?

Two new vaccines developed by the pharmaceutical companies Pfizer and Moderna rely on technology that makes the human body produce the spike proteins from the coronavirus to teach the human immune system to recognize the full coronavirus when it enters the body. One expert told Science that with vaccines being rolled out, variants that help the virus thrive could become more prevalent. That could help the coronavirus overcome the nearly perfect immunity offered by these new vaccines, but no one knows for sure. “It stands to reason that this mutation isn’t a threat,” Dr. Nelson Michael, director of the Center for Infectious Diseases Research at Walter Reed Army Institute of Research, told CNN this weekend. “But you never know. We still have to be diligent and continue to look.”

Zach Williams
is a staff reporter at City & State.
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