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New Strain of Coronavirus Sets Off Alarm in Europe

A potentially dangerous mutation of the novel coronavirus found to be spreading rapidly in the United Kingdom is causing alarm across Europe and prompting countries to close off travel with Britain.

(CN) — A potentially dangerous mutation of the novel coronavirus found to be spreading rapidly in the United Kingdom is causing alarm across the world and prompting countries to close off travel with Britain.

On Saturday, the U.K. imposed strict lockdown measures to stop the spread of a new variant of the virus that British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said is much more transmissible, though he said there was no evidence it was more lethal or more resistant to vaccines. In many parts of Britain, Christmas and New Year celebrations are being severely curtailed due to the threat posed by the new strain.

British officials said this new variant is rapidly proliferating in London and elsewhere in southern England. About 60% of London’s new cases are linked to the new variant, which Johnson said was 70% more transmissible.

By Monday, the European Union largely sealed off travel to the U.K. in an effort to clamp down on the spread of the new variant, whose appearance in Europe casts the hard-hit continent into new turmoil. Other non-EU countries were also shutting down travel to the U.K. On Monday, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo called on the U.S. to ban U.K. flights.

There was a sense of panic too with hundreds of trucks backed up at ports crossing the English Channel and Brits were stockpiling goods, raising fears of food shortages. EU officials were working with U.K. authorities on measures to get goods flowing again.

Adding to the chaos is the pending departure of the U.K. from the EU on Jan. 1. The U.K.'s sudden isolation as a dangerously infected island could also be seen as a metaphor for the political and societal changes brought about by Brexit and foreshadowed potential disruptions that may occur in little more than a week when the U.K. formally leaves the EU.

A trade deal between the two sides has not been reached, despite feverish negotiations, raising the specter of a massive breakdown in trade and relations. Even if a bare-bones trade deal can be agreed upon at the last moment before the New Year, there will be new customs checks and other disruptions regardless.

European financial markets suffered losses on Monday and the threat of this new strain cast shadows over a Monday approval by EU medical authorities of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine against Covid-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus.

The threat caused by the coronavirus variant remains unclear, though if it spreads more easily that poses a clear danger. Still, scientists are divided over whether it is more transmissible, according to media reports.

British authorities say more than 1,100 new cases have been linked to the variant. The new strain has been found in Denmark, Belgium, the Netherlands, Italy, Australia and Iceland. A similar, but different, strain was recently picked up in South Africa.

On Monday, World Health Organization experts said there was no evidence the new strain was more dangerous nor that it would render vaccines less effective. Since the novel coronavirus was first discovered in China, it has undergone many mutations but WHO experts say such changes are to be expected and that they have not been so extreme as to make vaccines being developed against it ineffective.

They urged people not to panic.

“Viruses mutate over time, that's natural and expected,” said Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the WHO director-general, during a news briefing at the agency's Geneva headquarters on Monday.

FILE - Trucks are parked near the port, Monday, Dec. 21, 2020, after the Port of Dover, England, was closed and access to the Eurotunnel terminal suspended. (Kirsty Wigglesworth/AP)

He said there is no evidence the new variant “is more likely to cause severe disease or mortality.”

Regardless, he said the best strategy against this strain and other potential new strains of the novel coronavirus is to suppress transmission.

“The more we allow it to spread, the more opportunity it has to change,” Tedros said.

Maria van Kerkhove, the WHO's technical lead for the pandemic, said U.K. researchers believe the new strain appeared as early as September. British researchers began investigating the strain in November and notified the WHO about it on Dec. 14, she said.

In determining how infectious a virus is, epidemiologists use as a parameter the number of other people an infected person will pass a virus onto, something known as a reproduction rate. In this case, the British mutation is raising that rate from 1.1 people to 1.5 people, Van Kerkhove said, citing British research.

“That just put the bar up a little bit -- in some senses, it means we have to work harder,” said Dr. Mike Ryan, the WHO head of emergencies.

He said countries have dealt with much higher reproduction rates than 1.5 during the pandemic.

“So this situation is not, in that sense, out of control, but it cannot be left to its own devices,” Ryan said.

By comparison, he said measles, mumps and chickenpox spread at reproduction rates between 10 and 18.

Around the world, researchers are tracking mutations in the virus through genetic sequencing analysis. This coronavirus, known scientifically by the abbreviation SARS-CoV-2, has changed many times before and previous mutations, such as one linked this summer to Spain, have been blamed for outbreaks. This new mutation involves slight changes in the virus' proteins that make it bind a bit better to human cells.

“This is probably the first time where we have been able to use real-time genetic sequence to track the movement of a disease around this planet,” Ryan said. “It's an incredible scientific detective story. What's wonderful is that countries like the U.K. and countries like South Africa are looking, they're monitoring, they're taking it deadly seriously.”

While he praised countries for taking precautionary measures against the new strain, he also warned against “overplaying” the mutation.

“It's really important as we use those tools (of genetic sequencing) that we are very cautious then and very measured in how we communicate with the media and with you, the public,” he said. “That we're communicating important information but at the same time that we're not overplaying that information in a way that scares people too much. We have to find a balance.”

Dr. Soumya Swaminathan, the WHO chief scientist, said vaccines against the coronavirus are likely to work against this new strain too.

“All viruses mutate, some more rapidly than others,” she said. “So far, even though we have seen a number of changes, a number of mutations, none has made a significant impact on either the susceptibility of the virus to any of the currently used therapeutics, drugs or the vaccines under development.”

By comparison, she said the common influenza virus mutates fast and for that reason flu vaccines are updated every year to fight off the most prevalent strains circulating in any given year. 

Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.

Follow @cainburdeau
Categories / Government, Health, International

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