What science knows and doesn’t know about the UK COVID variant
By Pedro Correa Henry
Special to The STAR
A new SARS-CoV-2 variant, recently named lineage B.1.1.7, has surged in southern England and has led dozens of countries, including several in Europe, to ban travel from the United Kingdom.
The new strain has raised debates among scientists as it appears to be more contagious and genetically distinct from other strains; however, Puerto Rico Public Health Trust (PRPHT) Executive Director José Rodríguez Orengo told the STAR on Tuesday that such a strain is not uncommon as “it is among thousands of other mutations of the coronavirus that have yet to be reported.”
“This is something that we scientists know will be happening because what the virus does is that, once it replicates, it will produce errors that can give advantage to new variants to keep multiplying within an environment,” Rodríguez Orengo said. “It has happened with HIV, Hepatitis C, and many other viruses that we know of as these viruses replicate up to a million, or even a billion times, and the strain with the best fitness is the one that will dominate and continue to spread.”
The PRPHT executive director explained to the Star that “England has a group of scientists within the public health sector who are conducting all sorts of analyses with the virus as they are sequencing it.”
“They notice that this particular strain, which has been reported since September, was the variant that was replicating among human beings in this region, as around 60 percent were reported to be infected with this [coronavirus] strain,” he said.
Rodríguez Orengo said that what raised flags for scientists was that the coronavirus’ R number, which is a way of rating any disease’s ability to spread, rose from 1.1 to 1.5.
“To anyone who is studying the pandemic, seeing such a [infection] rate could put us on a ‘red level,’ a critical state,” as it projects the virus to infect more people and could lead to more hospitalizations if the variant arrives in other regions,” he said. “This led scientists to state that this virus is not the same as the one we were facing three months ago.”
As for the efficacy of recently authorized COVID-19 vaccines against this particular mutation, Rodríguez Orengo said the new vaccines will remain effective “as the mutations we have seen in the spike [protein] have been conservative.”
“If the virus keeps mutating, as has happened with the influenza virus, eventually we would see a variant that could escape from the vaccines, but for now, that’s not the case,” he said.
The STAR asked if children were becoming more susceptible to the recent coronavirus variant. Rodríguez Orengo said that with earlier variants it was estimated that one in 100 children could get infected with the virus. It is still under investigation if the new variant can make minors more vulnerable, he said.
“In terms of the laboratory, they are asking many other questions and doing research, but what we have seen is that the infection rate [of the coronavirus] tends to be increasing in southern England among minors,” he said, adding that the aforementioned information has yet to be peer-reviewed.
Meanwhile, Rodríguez Orengo said data in recent studies show that COVID symptoms and the coronavirus’ severity remain the same in the emerging strain.
“This new strain has not made patients have more intense headaches or higher fever, or lose their sense of taste and smell faster,” he said.
‘As the virus keeps spreading, more mutations will occur’
Rodríguez Orengo said the only way for the coronavirus to stop mutating and become less of a threat to humanity is for people to “keep practicing safety measures” such as staying home as much as possible, using face masks at all times when running errands, and practicing physical distancing.
“When fewer people become infected with the virus, the virus has fewer chances to mutate,” he said while insisting that it was important for every citizen to cooperate in preventing the virus from spreading.
And with Christmas Day now less than 48 hours away, Rodriguéz Orengo said the PRPHT invites everyone to “take care of their families by staying at home and not risking your lives, as the COVID disease is nesting this year.”