Lockdowns have been initiated in the United Kingdom, as Canada as well as several European Union countries cancel flights after information was revealed about a new variant of the virus that causes COVID-19. Researchers are rigorously examining how the mutations arose, what it means for vaccines, and updating their understanding of the virus.
In a tweet, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced Sunday evening that Canada would be restricting flights from the U.K. for at least 72 hours.
“This afternoon, I convened a meeting with the Incident Response Group. We focused on the new variant of COVID-19 identified in the UK, and we have decided to implement new border restrictions in order to keep you – and people right across the country – safe,” the prime minister wrote on Twitter.
British Health Secretary Matt Hancock said Sunday the new variant, which had been announced by Public Health England last week, was now “out of control” but not more dangerous, adding that lockdown measures were being imposed to get it clamped down.
U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson told reporters this new variant is more than 70 per cent more transmissible. But he stressed, “There’s no evidence to suggest it is more lethal or causes more severe illness.”
On Sunday, the World Health Organization cautioned against major alarm, saying the fact that researchers detected the new variant means new tools to track the virus are working.
“(It’s) important to get across that this is a normal part of virus evolution,” WHO emergencies chief Mike Ryan told an online briefing. “Being able to track a virus this closely, this carefully, this scientifically in real time is a real positive development for global public health, and the countries doing this type of surveillance should be commended.”
MUTATIONS ARE NORMAL FOR VIRUSES
WHO officials further explained that coronavirus mutations had so far been much slower than with influenza; and that when compared to other diseases, such as mumps, the U.K. variant was less transmissible.
For the past year, scientists have seen thousands of naturally-occurring mutations in samples of the novel coronavirus.
But none have led to worsening symptoms or affected how quickly the virus spreads — until this latest mutation.
A report released on Sunday by the COVID-19 Genomics UK consortium outlined how the strain, which goes by the name B.1.1.7, caught the attention of U.K. scientists earlier this month, because so many recently infected patients contracted this variant.
However, in a press conference on Saturday, chief U.K. science adviser Patrick Vallance explained that the variant had first been isolated on Sept. 20, and went on to account for approximately 26 per cent of cases by mid-November. But the number of cases skyrocketed in December.
“By the week commencing the ninth of December, these figures were much higher,” Vallance said. “So, in London, over 60 per cent of all the cases were the new variant.”
In the consortium’s report, “it has been speculated that it may have arisen from a chronically infected individual.” In other words, scientists hypothesize the high degree of mutations occurred during a long infection of a single patient.
This is because similar build-ups of mutations has been observed in “immunocompromised patients with chronic infections of SARS-COV-2,” according to the report.