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COVID-19: What do we know about the new coronavirus variant?

Medical News Today
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Matt Hancock
Bette Korber
Nathan Grubaugh
Martin Hibberd
Jonathan Stoye
Jonathan StoyeMany
Julian W. Tang
Uğur Şahin
Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus


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Positivity     35.00%   
   Negativity   65.00%
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In this Special Feature, Medical News Today look at what we do — and do not — know about this variant and what health experts have to say.Recently, global media has been abuzz with news and speculation about a new variant of SARS-CoV-2, the virus responsible for COVID-19.The variant, which researchers first identified in the U.K., is called B.1.1.7, though as scientists began to express concern about it, initial U.K. government documents dubbed it VUI – 202012/01, standing for “the first variant under investigation in December 2020.”Later government documents from December designated it as a “variant of concern,” and referred to it as VOC 202012/01.B.1.1.7 was first spotted in the U.K. in September 2020. It began to draw attention from the scientific community and governmental authorities in early December, when the U.K. health secretary, Matt Hancock, suggested that it was spreading fast and likely contributing to the rising number of SARS-CoV-2 infections in the South of England.Stay informed with live updates on the current COVID-19 outbreak and visit our coronavirus hub for more advice on prevention and treatment.Now, at the time of this article’s publication, the new variant has been spotted in at least 33 countries.But why is this variant of so much interest to scientists, public health organizations, and the public at large? In this Special Feature, we review what we know so far about B.1.1.7 and look into the questions that scientists are still trying to answer.Below, we explore what viral mutations are, how they relate to the development of new viral strains, and whether the new SARS-CoV-2 variant identified in the U.K. is a cause for concern.Also, MNT have been in touch with Pfizer and the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) to find out whether the COVID-19 vaccines currently available in the United States and Europe will be effective against B.1.1.7. Hibberd told MNT that based on existing data from the U.K., the new variant does not appear to lead to more severe cases of COVID-19, compared with other variants or strains of SARS-CoV-2.“The infection case fatality rate, [which is] based on community population-based estimates of the number of people [with an infection] and the number of deaths observed — estimated from the data in the U.K. Ireland has prolonged its nationwide lockdown, with tighter rules in place.In the preprint version of the LSHTM study, the researchers warn that given the new variant’s apparently higher transmissibility, “Existing control measures [to contain the spread of the virus] are likely to be less effective, and countries may require stronger proactive interventions to achieve the same level of control.”In a statement published on December 31, 2020, the World Health Organization (WHO) noted that several countries are already taking what measures they can to stay ahead of the game.Countries that have observed the spread of new virus variants have “intensified sampling to understand how widely these new variants are circulating,” and scientists have ramped up efforts to understand whether or how new SARS-CoV-2 variants might affect transmission, disease severity, and vaccine effectiveness, according to the statement.The WHO have also recommended that “Risk communication and community engagement activities [be] scaled up to explain the public health implications of SARS-CoV-2 variants to the public and emphasize the importance of maintaining ongoing preventive measures to reduce transmission.”One unanswered question about B.1.1.7 concerns the susceptibility of children to the new variant.In the U.K., schools were largely open during the fall term but have recently closed for most children. In the future, it may be necessary to alter the vaccine composition in the way that we do with flu, but hopefully not as often,” he added.MNT also contacted NIAID, an organization within the National Institutes of Health (NIH) that had collaborated with the biotechnology company Moderna to create a COVID-19 vaccine currently authorized for use in the U.S. and U.K. They explained:“NIAID scientists have communicated with counterparts at Public Health England, a part of the U.K. government, to closely track their understanding of SARS-CoV-2 VOC 202012/01, also known as the U.K. variant. Even if a SARS-CoV-2 variant has a few mutations that prevent binding of some antibodies, scientists expect that other antibodies with different binding properties will neutralize the virus,” NIAID also told MNT.The pharmaceutical corporation Pfizer, whose COVID-19 vaccine — created in collaboration with the biotechnology company BioNTech — has gained authorization in the U.S., U.K., and the European Union, made a similar statement:“The identification of a new variant of the SARS-CoV-2 virus does not impact the rollout of the Pfizer and BioNTech COVID-19 mRNA Vaccine BNT162b2. Health professionals are advised to continue to follow the official guidance on [the] administration of the vaccine.”They added that “The companies [Pfizer and BioNTech] are monitoring SARS-CoV-2 sequence changes and working to generate data to evaluate how well serum from people immunized with BNT162b2 may be able to neutralize the new strain.”In collaboration with scientists at the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston, Pfizer recently released a study, currently in preprint form, in which they looked at the N501Y mutation. “This new variant is not likely to be the last and there will, no doubt, be further variants in the coming year or years.” Both experts stressed the importance of following public health guidelines, such as physical distancing, wearing face coverings, washing the hands frequently and thoroughly, and following all local lockdown rules.Already last spring, scientists were cautioning the public that the new coronavirus may be here to stay, with waves of infections becoming a seasonal occurrence.As more variants of SARS-CoV-2 begin to emerge around the world, adherence to these basic public health guidelines is becoming a “new normal,” while national vaccination programs will help gradually build more widespread immunity to the virus.Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, director-general of the WHO, has pointed out that difficult experiences such as the ongoing pandemic help bring about much-needed change and improvements:For live updates on the latest developments regarding the novel coronavirus and COVID-19, click here.This live article contains regularly updated information on the experimental vaccines being developed for COVID-19.In this Special Feature article, we explain what T cells are, their role in COVID-19, and how scientists are studying them.mRNA vaccines deliver information to our cells that allows them to make viral or bacterial proteins.

As said here by Maria Cohut, Ph.D.