Coronavirus infections in part of the UK quickly took center stage in the COVID-19 pandemic after researchers identified a variant of the virus that could be behind a recent rise in cases.
On 14 December, UK Health Secretary Matt Hancock first announced that the variant, called B.1.1.7., Could be related to a faster spread that officials saw among people. In the days that followed, evidence emerged to support that hypothesis, leading officials to take stricter public health measures to curb new infections, including restricting meetings of people who do not live in the same household.
Early tests have led experts to closely monitor the spread of the new variant, but say there is no cause for alarm so far. Here are some things you should know about B.1.1.7.
It is common for new virus variants to appear.
Virus variants always appear, including the new coronavirus. As viruses replicate in cells and make error-prone copies of their genetic planes, viruses naturally accumulate mutations (SN: 26/05/20).
Some rare mutations change the behavior of a virus, but most do not. Instead, researchers primarily use variants like “fingerprints” to track the spread of the disease, says Stephen Goldstein, an evolutionary virologist at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City.
The new UK variant seems to be spreading rapidly, but scientists don’t know for sure.
The UK variant has more changes compared to its closest relative than most other coronavirus variants. “Nothing I’ve seen … is the only definitive, murderous proof that this is definitely more transmissible,” says Aris Katzourakis, an evolutionary virologist at Oxford University. "But there are so many circumstantial things pointing in that direction."
For example, people infected with B.1.1.7 tend to transmit the virus to more people on average and have more coronavirus genetic material in the body than people with other variants of the virus, according to a Dec. 18 issue. summary of the meeting of the UK New and Emerging Airways Advisory Group. Such evidence is, as Katzourakis says, circumstantial. To find out for sure, researchers need additional evidence from experiments done on animals or more data from people.
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Studies have also shown that one of the mutations in the variant, called N501Y, could make B.1.1.7 more contagious, perhaps helping it bind better to ACE2, a host protein that leaves the virus in cells (SN: 2/3 / 20). It is unclear, however, whether all observations together come from a more transmissible virus, which could be more difficult to control.
It is also possible that the increase in coronavirus cases may be due to human behavior, Katzourakis says. "We have recently come out of a deadlock, so much of this increase in the event that the number may be due to the relaxation of social distance measures." He says the most plausible scenario should be clear in about a week or so.
It is unknown whether it causes a more serious or mild illness.
A mutation in B.1.1.7 leads to a shorter version of a viral protein called ORF8 than that seen in other variants. But it is not clear what ORF8 does during an infection. Some changes in ORF8 have actually been associated with less severe COVID-19 symptoms.
There is currently no evidence to suggest that the variant causes more serious illnesses.
There is also no evidence that vaccines would be less effective against it.
The UK variant lacks two amino acids that are targets of neutralizing antibodies, immune proteins that prevent the virus from turning it into a host cell. This, among many other mutations in the B.1.1.7 spike protein, could help the virus hide from some immune responses, including those induced by a vaccine.
But our bodies can attack a wide variety of coronavirus surfaces to control infection, Goldstein says. So for now, immune protection against vaccines should still be effective. Vaccines may need to be updated in the future, but perhaps not for a few years.
COVID-19 vaccine developers Pfizer and Moderna are conducting testing to make sure newly authorized vaccines work against the new variant (SN: 18/12/20).
Scientists do not know where it came from.
Where the new variant came from is a mystery. In general, coronaviruses are similar to other viruses because their genetic material quickly builds up errors. But they are also different because they are part of a select group that has a viral version of spelling correction. This correction system means that coronaviruses change more slowly over time than other viruses that also use RNA as a genetic plan, such as the flu.
B.1.1.7, on the other hand, has many more mutations that change or remove amino acids from viral proteins than experts would expect when compared to the more related coronavirus variant.
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One possibility is that the variant came from someone who had a weak immune system, which allowed the virus to replicate for a much longer period of time than usual and gather many mutations, says Katzourakis. "It seems like that was kind of a leap, something that essentially gave a hand to evolution." Researchers have already seen the coronavirus change after an infection in immunocompromised patients. These cases can help the virus detect mutations that otherwise during infections in other people with stronger immune systems.
A South African coronavirus variant shares some of the changes to the UK variant.
The UK is not the only country to report a variant with the N501Y mutation. Such a variant is also on the rise in South Africa. Both versions acquired the change independently of each other, the researchers say.
The fact that coronavirus variants in different parts of the world evolved independently of the same mutation suggests that it could have some beneficial effect on the virus, Goldstein says. Some variants can be successful in spreading through the population only by chance: an infected person boarded a plane and spread the virus after reaching its destination. But in this case, the rapid spread of B.1.1.7 in the UK and its distant relative in South Africa hints that the change could help transmit the variants, he says.
Researchers around the world should examine coronavirus genetic material from as many infected people as possible to control similar variants, experts say. That would help officials pinpoint whether new or similar variants are spreading to other countries as well.
The variant may very well spread in the United States, but that is also not clear.
Some people outside the UK have been infected with the UK variant, even in Denmark and Australia, but there is still no evidence that it is spreading in these countries. The variant may also be in the United States, Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institutes of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said in an interview with Good Morning America on Dec. 22.
So far, efforts to control the genetic composition of coronaviruses in the United States have not found that specific variant of the virus. But less than half a percent of cases in the United States have been analyzed, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Public health measures such as masks will still prevent the variant from spreading.
Although it is clear that B.1.1.7 is more contagious than other versions of coronavirus, the use of masks and social distancing will still be crucial tools to curb its spread (SN: 11/11/20). Officials "may have to think about introducing additional measures, but they will be the same type of measures, potentially more frequent and stricter."
For example, although there is now evidence to suggest that another variant of coronavirus with a mutation, called D614G, that emerged after the pandemic began and spread around the world is more contagious than variants without the change, "has not prevented countries like Vietnam or Taiwan, South Korea or New Zealand cannot contain the virus, ”Goldstein says.
"I think it shows us that while there may be small differences in transmission efficiency, it doesn't mean the virus is suddenly unstoppable."
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