Mounting Evidence Suggests UK COVID-19 Variant Is More Contagious Than Other Strains

The new variant was first identified in England late last year. Matteo Roma/Shutterstock.com

Updated 01/12/2020: A pre-print paper, which has yet to be peer-reviewed, by Pfizer has suggested that the variants should still respond to their vaccine. Scientists are also remaining confident that the South African and the UK variant is unlikely to "completely negate" COVID vaccines

After first being identified in England last month, the new variant of COVID-19 has now been found in at least 32 countries. A huge amount of uncertainty still surrounds this variant, but scientists are slowly revealing what it’s all about. The long and short of it: mounting evidence does indicate the variant is more contagious than other strains, but scientists are hopeful the virus will respond to vaccines. It also doesn’t look like the new variant will make you sicker than other strains of the new coronavirus.

The speedy rate at which the variant was suddenly found across the UK in December 2020 posited that it was potentially more contagious than other strains in circulation in the UK and beyond. Now, a new preprint paper — meaning it has not yet been peer-reviewed — by scientists at Imperial College London provides evidence towards view, suggesting that the UK variant is indeed more transmissible. 

Using statistical analyses of datasets on COVID-19 cases, they estimate the variant “originated in the UK in late Summer to early Autumn 2020.” Patterns of its spread indicate it has a transmission advantage of 0.4 to 0.7 in reproduction number (R Number), compared to previous variants. In other words, this means the new variant will be transmitted to 0.4 to 0.7 more people than other strains on average. That might not necessarily sound a lot, but it has the potential to dramatically increase the number of COVID-19 cases across a population. 

Interestingly, the new analysis also suggests the new variant is responsible for the increased levels of infection seen in teenagers and people under 20 years old, although the researchers aren’t sure why this is the case.

It’s important to note it’s still difficult to understand how much of the increased spread is due to viral genetics compared to human behavior. In other words, is the virus innately more transmissible due to its genetics or is it being spread more because of other factors, such as ineffective public health measures? It’s still unclear. Regardless, off the back of the new study, researchers are calling for further public health measures to stop the spread of the new variant. 

“Unless we do something different the new virus strain is going to continue to spread, more infections, more hospitalizations, and more deaths," said Professor Jim Naismith, director of the Rosalind Franklin Institute and professor of structural biology at the University of Oxford, UK.

So, will this have any impact on the vaccine? The UK, along with several other countries across the world, has started to roll out its COVID-19 vaccines. Some research has shown the mutation of the new variant occurs on spike proteins of the virus responsible for binding to human cells — key targets for vaccines — raising the question the variant might comprise the vaccine. Fortunately, most scientists agree it’s unlikely that this new variant will impact vaccine effectiveness, although it’s certainly something the public health authorities need to keep a close eye on. 

“There is no evidence to date that these variants will be resistant to the current vaccines — indeed, vaccines work by generating a large array of antibodies and T cells that will work even if a small number of these antibodies are compromised by specific viral mutations,” according to Independent SAGE, an independent group of UK scientists providing transparent advice during the COVID-19 crisis, in an emailed statement. 

“Nevertheless, further evolution of the current variants, which already have changes in the key antibody binding areas of the virus, may start to impact on future vaccine effectiveness… We are entering a risky period, with the very high levels of transmission at precisely the same time as vaccine rollout — leading to evolutionary pressure on the large amount of virus in the population to escape vaccine immunity."

For more information about COVID-19, check out the IFLScience COVID-19 hub where you can follow the current state of the pandemic, the progress of vaccine development, and further insights into the disease.

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