What we know so far about the new coronavirus strain in Britain

© Provided by National Post Travellers look at the information boards at King's Cross station, as EU countries impose a travel ban from the UK following the coronavirus disease outbreak, in London, Britain, Dec. 21, 2020.

NATIONAL POST-More countries closed their borders to Britain on Monday over fears of a highly infectious new coronavirus strain, heightening global panic, causing travel chaos and raising the prospect of U.K. food shortages just days before the Brexit cliff edge.

India, Pakistan, Poland, Spain, Switzerland, Sweden, Russia, Jordan and Hong Kong suspended travel for Britons after Prime Minister Boris Johnson warned a mutated variant of the virus, up to 70 per cent more transmissible, had been identified in the country. Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Oman closed their borders completely.

Several other nations blocked travel from Britain over the weekend, including France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Austria, Ireland, Belgium and Canada — although experts said the strain may already be circulating in countries with less advanced detection methods than the United Kingdom.

Here’s what we know so far about the new strain:

A lockdown in Britain

On Saturday, U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson imposed harsh lockdowns in London and most of southeast England after an emergency cabinet meeting Friday. The lockdown came after the government received news that a new variant of the novel coronavirus had been detected in England’s southeast.

More than 16 million Britons are now required to stay at home and the government scrapped plans to relax rules on socializing at Christmas, an indication that the U.K. fears the new variant could accelerate transmission in the cold winter months, the New York Times reported .

Travel into and out of hot zones is banned, along with household mixing for Christmas, and all non-essential businesses are forced to close at least until Dec. 30.

Health Secretary Matt Hancock described the new strain of the coronavirus as “out of control”.

Changes in the new strain

The main worry is that the variant is significantly more transmissible than the original strain. It has 23 mutations in its genetic code — a relatively high number of changes — and some of these are affecting its ability to spread.

The new variant shares a critical mutation with a lineage that is exploding in transmission in South Africa — it now accounts for 80 to 90 per cent of the country’s new infections.

“We normally see 20 to 30 lineages in our samples at a given time,” said Tulio de Oliveira, a professor at the University of KwaZulu-Natal’s Nelson R. Mandela School of Medicine, in Durban, who first flagged the variant. “Now, we see only one.”

While the new variant was first seen in Britain in September, by the week of Dec. 9 in London, 62 per cent of COVID-19 cases were due to the new variant. That compared to 28 per cent of cases three weeks earlier.

The governments of Australia, Italy and the Netherlands say they detected cases of the new strain. It was identified in the Netherlands in early December.

A few cases of COVID-19 with the new variant have also been reported to the ECDC, Europe’s disease monitoring agency, by Iceland and Denmark. Media reports in Belgium say cases have also been detected there.

Not more deadly

The U.S. Surgeon General Jerome Adams said Sunday that the new strain will not decelerate vaccine efforts.

“Right now, we have no indications that it is going to hurt our ability to continue vaccinating people or that it is any more dangerous or deadly than the strains that are currently out there and that we know about,” Adams said.

Citing data from Britain, World Health Organization officials said they had no evidence that the variant made people sicker or was more deadly than existing strains of COVID-19, although it did seem to spread more easily.

Vaccines still expected to work

Doctors at the U.S. Walter Reed Army Institute of Research are currently researching how effective the current vaccines will be on he new strain. Though there is a worry that the vaccines won’t work on a significantly mutated virus, the doctors still expect vaccines to be effective, said Dr. Nelson Michael, director of the Center for Infectious Diseases Research at the institute.

“It stands to reason that this mutation isn’t a threat, but you never know. We still have to be diligent and continue to look,” Michael said.

The WHO also doubled down on the sentiment.

“As we start using drugs and vaccines, viruses evolve to try to avoid those,” said WHO chief scientist Soumya Swaminathan. “At this point in time, I don’t think we have any evidence to suggest that the vaccines under development will not work for the majority of patients.”

With files from Reuters.