A new coronavirus variant—currently known as B.1.621—is under investigation in the U.K., Public Health England announced Friday, after being discovered in a handful of other countries, including the U.S., as the country struggles to deal with rising cases driven by the infectious Delta variant after dropping most pandemic restrictions earlier this week.
The investigation into B.1.621 began on Wednesday after being designated a “variant under investigation” on Wednesday, Public Health England said.
So far, 16 cases have been detected across the country, 10 of which were in London.
“The majority” of these cases are linked to international travel, PHE said, and there is no evidence of transmission in the U.K.
The public health body said there was no evidence to suggest the variant caused more severe illness or made vaccines less effective.
PHE said it is “carrying out laboratory testing to better understand the impact of mutations on the behaviour of the virus” and will take “all appropriate public health interventions” to identify and follow up on cases to limit the variant’s spread.
In a technical briefing, PHE said the variant was flagged during routine scanning based on possibly concerning mutations and its apparent international spread, including in the U.S. (592 cases), Portugal (56), Japan (47), Switzerland (41) and India (23).
1,230. That’s how many genome sequences on GISAID, an open source genome repository, have been designated as B.1.621. The WHO says the first recorded case of B.1.621 was in Colombia in January. It has since been documented in 26 different countries and territories and GISAID data indicates an increasing number of countries reporting cases in June and July. Nearly half of the reported cases have been in the U.S.
It is expected and natural that viruses will mutate over time. It is the reason flu shots are changed on a yearly basis. The virus that causes Covid-19 is no exception and many different versions have been detected that differ from the first one identified in China. While many mutations do not change the virus’ behavior, some can and do, which is how more infectious, more lethal or more vaccine-resistant variants emerge. The dominant viruses in circulation today differ from that first detected in Wuhan, with successive iterations of more infectious variants taking over. The WHO instituted a naming mechanism for particularly concerning variants to avoid the stigma associated with naming it after where it was discovered, though this only kicks in once the organization declares it a “variant of concern.” Several of these variants are responsible for spreading around the world right now. The Delta variant—which is resistant to vaccines and highly infectious—has rapidly spread across the world and is responsible for a surge in cases worldwide, the WHO said. It is also the dominant variant in the U.S., having overtaken the previously-dominant Alpha variant (which was first detected in the U.K. in December.). The Lambda variant is possibly more infectious and more resistant to the immune system than previous variants, and is proliferating rapidly in South America. The Beta variant, which has not spread significantly outside the immediate vicinity of South Africa where it was first detected, is now beginning to spread more rapidly in Europe. The Gamma variant, which is also possibly more infectious, is also responsible for growing numbers of cases in the U.S., more than Delta in some areas.
What To Watch For
A virus mutates as it infects people, which is why many scientists have expressed alarm at the U.K.’s decision to drop almost all social restrictions despite having one of the highest case rates in the world. The government justifies this policy by noting that high vaccination rates have broken the link between infection, severe illness and death, though some experts say it creates a breeding ground for new variants that can possibly evade the vaccines.
A New Variant Of Covid-19 Has Emerged In England – Here Is What It Could Mean For The Pandemic And Vaccines (Forbes)
Here’s a Plan to Stop the Coronavirus From Mutating (Wired)
Why England’s COVID ‘freedom day’ alarms researchers (Nature)
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