My colleague Vijeta Uniyal reported that enhanced pandemic restrictions in the United Kingdom were being implemented to battle a new strain of the Wuhan virus, regarded as “much more infectious.”

The assertions about transmissibility, the ability to spread between one person to another, are based on modeling.

The British variant has about 20 mutations, including several that affect how the virus locks onto human cells and infects them. These mutations may allow the variant to replicate and transmit more efficiently, said Muge Cevik, an infectious disease expert at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland and a scientific adviser to the British government.

But the estimate of greater transmissibility — British officials said the variant was as much as 70 percent more transmissible — is based on modeling and has not been confirmed in lab experiments, Dr. Cevik added.

The British model predicted the US would have over 2 million dead of coronavirus within 3 months of the first cases the last time officials used it. In fact, the model was deemed “a buggy mess” by software experts.

In fact, virologists assessing the theory about the British variant (tagged by scientists as B. 1. 1. 7) say there are too many unknowns to make the claims about it being more infectious. In fact, one of them noted that the mutation involved a change that would make the virus harder to spread.

In a press conference on Saturday, chief science advisor Patrick Vallance said that B.1.1.7, which first appeared in a virus isolated on 20 September, accounted for about 26% of cases in mid-November. “By the week commencing the 9th of December, these figures were much higher,” he said. “So, in London, over 60% of all the cases were the new variant.” Boris Johnson added that the slew of mutations may have increased the virus’s transmissibility by 70%.

Christian Drosten, a virologist at Charité University Hospital in Berlin, says that was premature. “There are too many unknowns to say something like that,” he says. For one thing, the rapid spread of B.1.1.7 might be down to chance. Scientists previously worried that a variant that spread rapidly from Spain to the rest of Europe—confusingly called B.1.177—might be more transmissible, but today they think it is not; it just happened to be carried all over Europe by travelers who spent their holidays in Spain.

Something similar might be happening with B.1.1.7, says Angela Rasmussen, a virologist at Georgetown University. Drosten notes that the new mutant also carries a deletion in another viral gene, ORF8, that previous studies suggest might reduce the virus’s ability to spread.

There are also worries that the British strain is deadlier. This concern is also unfounded if one relies strictly on science.

Still, B.1.177, the strain from Spain, offers a cautionary lesson, says virologist Emma Hodcroft of the University of Basel. U.K. scientists initially thought it had a 50% higher mortality rate, but that turned out to be “purely messy, biased data in the early days,” she says.

“I think that is a very strong reminder that we always have to be really careful with early data.” In the case of N501Y, more young people may be getting sick because many more are getting infected; Oliveira says some recent post-exam celebrations in South Africa have turned into superspreading events.

Surgeon General Dr. Jerome Adams wanted the public to be cautious about the new reports.

Adams cautioned that the public should remember that viruses mutate “all the time,” but that it does not necessarily make them more dangerous.

“We don’t even know if it’s really more contagious yet or not, or if it just happened to be a strain that was involved in a super-spreader event,” Adams told “Face the Nation” host Margaret Brennan. “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 out there and we currently know about.”

As a reminder, as of late March 2019, scientists had already detected 8 strains of coronavirus. At that time, they concluded the strains were changing relatively slowly (for a virus) and did not appear to be getting worse after mutation.

Labs around the world are turning their sequencing machines, most about the size of a desktop printer, to the task of rapidly sequencing the genomes of virus samples taken from people sick with COVID-19. The information is uploaded to a website called NextStrain.org that shows how the virus is migrating and splitting into similar but new subtypes.

While researchers caution they’re only seeing the tip of the iceberg, the tiny differences between the virus strains suggest shelter-in-place orders are working in some areas and that no one strain of the virus is more deadly than another. They also say it does not appear the strains will grow more lethal as they evolve.

“The virus mutates so slowly that the virus strains are fundamentally very similar to each other,” said Charles Chiu, a professor of medicine and infectious disease at the University of California, San Francisco School of Medicine.

One is forced to question the timing of the media’s new concerns over the strains, given that the vaccines are beginning to be distributed.

One last point: Politicians may wish to consider this contrast between the Florida and California responses before deciding that more intense pandemic lockdowns are the solution to the new strain, or any other, of the Wuhan coronavirus.

 

 
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