Health authorities in the European Union and in the United Kingdom have been sounding the alarm as a new strain of the coronavirus has begun spreading rapidly throughout England. It was first detected around mid-October, but it was only around mid-December when scientists really started getting worried when they found it may have been the cause of the rapidly rising number of cases in London and southeast England.
By early November, the strain, known as B.1.1.7, was responsible for 28 percent of new infections in London. By the end of that same month, it was responsible for 63 percent of infections.
B.1.1.7 has significantly more mutations than any previous variant of SARS-CoV-2. Researchers found that 23 letters within the virus' genetic code have changed, 17 of which could significantly alter its behavior. These include mutations on the "spike protein," the protein it uses to enter human cells.
It is very rare for a variant to have so many mutations appear at the same time. Virologists believe that it may have come from one patient who had a severely suppressed immune system. This patient would have incubated the virus for several weeks. During this time, it most likely mutated multiple times before it finally infected someone else.
Computer modeling of the viral spread is suggesting that B.1.1.7 could be between 50 to 70 percent more transmissible than other strains of the SARS-CoV-2.
Despite the concerns raised regarding B.1.1.7, medical authorities like the European Medicines Agency are still arguing that there is no evidence that the new strain can defeat their newly-developed vaccines. (Related: VACCINE EUGENICS: Elderly Americans should not be first in line for COVID-19 vaccine because they're "too white," claim medical experts.)
"All the currently identified strains, including B.1.1.7, only carry sporadic point mutations in the spike protein that are believed to be unlikely to disrupt the full spectrum of their immunogenicity," said Morgan Stanley analyst David Risinger in a note.
Pharmaceutical companies involved in the creation of COVID-19 vaccines have all expressed messages of confidence saying that the vaccines will definitely work against B.1.1.7.
Ugur Sahin, CEO of BioNTech SE, a European pharmaceutical company that partnered with Pfizer to create a coronavirus vaccine, said that he is confident in his company's vaccine.
However, if the current shot fails to provide adequate protection, the company said that they can "tweak" the vaccine by updating the genetic information their vaccine uses, known as messenger RNA. A BioNTech spokesperson said their tests will take about two weeks to run.
"The beauty of the messenger RNA technology is that we can directly start to engineer a vaccine which completely mimics this new mutation," said Sahin at a press conference on Tuesday, Dec. 22.
BioNTech is pushing ahead with its plan to roll out coronavirus vaccines to all 27 states in the European Union. The company said that they are prepared to deliver at least 12.5 million doses (enough for 6.25 million people) to the 27 member nations within the bloc by the end of the year.
Other vaccine makers like Moderna, Oxford-AstraZeneca and Sanofi have expressed similar levels of confidence regarding the effectiveness of their vaccines against B.1.1.7.
Moderna said that they believe their vaccine can still shield people from the virus. However, they have no evidence and so will run some tests to confirm their statements.
Oxford University and AstraZeneca have stated that they are investigating the qualities of the mutation, but that they do not believe the shot's effectiveness will be affected.
Sanofi simply stated that they will test the efficiency of their experimental vaccine against any variant.
Despite their confidence in their vaccines, the European Union along with over a dozen other countries have still banned arrivals from the U.K. British Prime Minister Boris Johnson himself has placed London on lockdown, citing the threat of the mutated strain.
British health authorities have said that while B.1.1.7 has spread throughout most of London and southeast England, they have no evidence to show that it is deadlier than other strains.
This unexpected travel ban is expected to affect the country's economy. At least 1,500 trucks bound for France were left in the U.K. due to the sudden blockade, and grocers said that people should expect a shortage of certain goods such as lettuce, cauliflower, broccoli and citrus fruit.
The EU is expected to come up with a coordinated response to the new strain by Monday, Dec. 28.
Learn more about the coronavirus pandemic, and the new strains that are causing whole countries to panic and shut down by reading the latest articles at Pandemic.news.