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A new variant of Covid-19 had been detected, which have reportedly caused the spike in cases in London, Essex, and Kent. The World Health Organization had been informed of the variant, which is unlikely to cause more serious disease than others. Over 1,000 cases with this variant have been identified in London and numbers are increasing rapidly.
The 'out-of-control' variant of Sars-Cov-2 is said to be up to 70 per cent more transmissible than the existing one and has caused a growing alarm across the globe. The new variant is being called VUI-202012/01 - the first "Variant Under Investigation," several countries have imposed restrictions on travellers from the UK .
The sudden surge in the numbers has indeed set about a sense of uncertainty and fear among citizens all around the world, with the Indian Aviation Ministry on Monday announcing the suspension of all flights to and from the UK from today until the end of 31 December and making it mandatory for all passengers arriving before the ban comes into force to be tested for Covid-19 .
The emergence of the news with such velocity can naturally cause a ripple in the society, especially with the holiday season around the corner, putting a dent in the common perception that by the year 2021, the pandemic may just 'magically vanish.'
So, here is everything you need to know about the New Strain of Coronavirus.
(1) What is the new strain of coronavirus?
Ans: Named VUI - 202012/01, this new variant of the coronavirus includes a genetic mutation in the spike protein that the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus uses to infect human cells. This mutation, according to scientists, has the potential to spread in a quicker fashion than the existing strain.
(2) What are the symptoms of the new COVID strain? Are they different from older variation?
Ans: Experts point out that it is too early to say if the new Covid strain will cause any symptoms different from the existing one. The new strain is believed to have not resulted in different symptoms and the primary symptoms remain the same which includes a continuous cough, chest pains, fever, a loss of taste and smell, and chills.
(3) When was the new coronavirus strain reported/discovered?
Ans: According to reports, this variant of the coronavirus was first detected in September in the UK and by November, more cases were reported to be in link with the mutated virus. Apart from the UK, Italy and Australia have reported the possibility of the new strain of coronavirus in the country - in two returnees from the UK.
(4) Can the new coronavirus strain cause severe Covid-19 complications?
Ans: Till date, there is no evidence so far that suggests that the new variant will cause severe Covid-19 infections and worsen the symptoms.
(5) How did the new coronavirus strain develop?
Ans: Mutations or genetic changes arise naturally in all viruses, and the same applies to SARS-CoV-2 . In May, scientists had published a study stating the mutation of the coronavirus and pointed out that this mutation was similar to the SARS outbreak in 2003. At that time the researchers pointed out that the mutation in the virus is rather unique and may pose challenges to the vaccine development as well as the current understanding of the severity of the coronavirus disease .
Old study for reference: Scientists Identify Mutation In Coronavirus, Similar To SARS
The group of researchers also said that the mutations have not made the virus deadlier - but there is an extremely rare chance that the virus could mutate to be more aggressive, and even suggested that there is a possibility that the mutation could just die out - which has since been proven wrong.
(6) Why is there concern about the UK coronavirus strain?
Ans: Firstly, the new coronavirus strain found in the UK is just one variation among many that have arisen since the advent of the pandemic. But the heightened concern is because the new strain can become dominant if one strain is a ‘founder' strain, that is, the types of strains that play a significant role in shaping the genomes, and thereby making it easier for the virus to spread.
(7) Is there any cause for extra concern with the new coronavirus strain?
Ans: As health experts point out, this specific strain had a large number of mutations (23) and could potentially have a significant impact on how the coronavirus spread. While most mutations are either harmful to the virus or have no effect, the high number of mutations is what has caused the scientists to look closely into this strain.
(8) Is mutation in a virus abnormal?
Ans: Not at all, mutation of viruses is a natural process that occurs all the time and, in most cases, the new variants die out, but in some cases the new variants can spread without altering the virus' behaviour, occasionally triggering drastic changes .
(9) Is the new coronavirus strain more contagious?
Ans: Reports and data from the UK show that the virus is spreading quickly in parts of southern England and has displaced other variants that have been circulating for months (indicating the new strain's ‘strength' in comparison to the existing strains). Experts have said that the variant was responsible for 60 per cent of new infections in London, which have nearly doubled in the last week alone . Evidence shows that infection rates in geographical areas where this strain has been circulating have increased faster than expected.
(10) Does the new coronavirus strain make people sicker or more likely to die?
Ans: As of now there is no proof for this, but experts suggest that it needs further consideration and there could be a possibility of the new strain making people sicker more seriously. The health experts are saying so because of another lineage of the coronavirus variant, which is spreading quickly through coastal areas of South Africa . Doctors have found people infected by this variant (SA) carry a heightened viral load in their upper respiratory tract and more severe symptoms .
(11) Will the new coronavirus strain make the new vaccines ineffective?
Ans: It has been pointed out by several health experts that current vaccines would still be effective against the variant, but more studies are required to understand the impact of the new variant. As vaccines help trigger broad immune system responses rather than just improving the immune system to make antibodies to the virus, the vaccines are expected to work against the respiratory illness .
(12) What does the new COVID strain mean for India?
Ans: Health officials from India stated that the new strain of the coronavirus that has been spreading rapidly in the UK, has not been detected in India yet (as of 22 Dec, 6.40 pm). They also added that the new mutation currently does not impact the potential of emerging vaccines in India and elsewhere .
Genome sequencing is being done in designated labs of the Department of Biotechnology, Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR), Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) and National Centre for Disease Control (NCDC) to observe the presence of the new mutation.
(13) What steps has India taken amidst the spread of the new coronavirus strain?
Ans: Union Health Minister Dr Harsh Vardhan Monday said that the government was on alert about the new strain of coronavirus and urged people not to panic. India announced the suspension of all flights originating from the UK to India from December 23 to December 31 on Monday. And those arriving before the suspension period would have to undergo mandatory RT-PCR tests on arrival.
In addition, the Maharashtra state government issued that all passengers coming from the Middle East and Europe would have to undergo 15 days of institutional quarantine and others coming from anywhere else in the world would have to undergo home quarantine . West Bengal and Telangana governments are preparing lists of passengers who arrived from the UK in the last few weeks, while Karnataka has made Covid-19 test mandatory for those who travelled from England and Denmark.
(14) What precautions are needed to protect oneself from the new COVID strain?
Ans: No new precautions need to be added to the existing ones and necessary steps such as masking, sanitising, social distancing should be continued. And avoid closed spaces, crowded spaces, and close contact.
New Strain A Cause For Concern Not Paranoia
As COVID-19 numbers around the world were dropping with a good recovery percentage, the emergence of the new variant has indeed caused widespread paranoia. Speaking to Boldsky, Sandy Madonna Rajkumar, a Research Associate at UCSF (University of California San Francisco) mentioned, "Falling prey to misinformation is easy at a vulnerable time like this. Several videos urging people to be more vigilant indeed has a good side to it, but it is important to be responsible without being paranoid."
Ms Sandy Rajkumar continued, "For example, the Influenza (flu virus with the fastest mutation rates) takes close to a decade to evade our immune system entirely. So, from the same view, it can be perceived that for the coronavirus new strain to attack your immune system in its entirety, it is going to take some time." She also added that our human bodies (and the vaccines) are capable of releasing a set of antibodies, however, she stresses, "this is just (my) optimistic way of looking at it."
So, simply hearing the word mutation is no specific cause for concern as the mutation is "what any virus is destined to do - aeons of evolution and selective pressure urging virus to mutate in order to sustain its propagation." The research associate further stressed the utmost importance of following the social guidelines, as human ignorance and recklessness could easily be the ‘selective pressure' factors urging the mutation.
On A Final Note…
Although this mutation could change the shape of the coronavirus spike proteins and make it harder for the antibodies to grip on to them, scientists believe that the variant will not be able to evade the vaccines. Keep in mind that increased infectivity (the ability of a pathogen to establish an infection) does not mean increased severity. Follow the social guidelines and stay safe.