The New COVID-19 Variant: What Is Known and Whether to Be Worried

The Doctors

A new variant of COVID-19 has been identified in the United Kingdom and it is thought to be potentially more contagious. 

CNN reports the variant, which has seen a surge of new cases especially in London, is being called VUI-202012/01 and Reuters notes some experts are referring to it as the B.1.1.7 lineage. It is not the first variant of the virus to emerge but this one is thought to be 40% to 70% more transmissible than the strain previously seen in the U.K.

What is a virus variant?

A variant or new strain happens when the genetic structure changes. This is something very commonly seen in viruses and usually occurs over time.

What is different about this new COVID variant?

The new strain reportedly has 23 mutations in its genetic code, which U.K. health experts note is a high number of changes and may be linked to why it is thought to be more easily spreading. 

What countries are being affected?

So far in addition to the U.K., it has been identified in Denmark, Belgium, the Netherlands, and Australia. Also, Reuters reports other COVID variants have been seen in South Africa and Spain.

Is this new virus variant deadlier?

Experts say, for now, it is not thought to be any deadlier than the previously identified strain of the virus.

Will the current vaccines still be effective on the new strain?

So far, experts believe the current vaccines will still protect people even as the virus changes. "We are not seeing any increased virulence (clinical severity) or any gross changes in the [spike protein] that will reduce vaccine effectiveness -- so far," Julian Tang, a clinical virologist at the University of Leicester, told the Science Media Centre, according to CNN. She goes on to explain this change in the virus might be a sign it is actually less lethal but notes it is too early to know, explaining, "New viruses will adapt to a new host over time -- with decreasing mortality, and possibly increasing transmissibility." Martin Hibberd, a professor of emerging infectious disease at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine adds, "As viruses are transmitted, those that allow for increased virological 'success' can be selected for, which changes the properties of the virus over time. This typically leads to more transmission and less virulence."

What is being done to contain the new virus variant?

Large parts of the U.K. are under a strict lockdown, and countries in Europe, the Middle East, and America have banned or restricted travel from England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland

More: Anthony Fauci Issues Dire Christmas COVID Warning: 'Cannot Be Business as Usual'

Watch: How Quickly Will the General Population Get the COVID-19 Vaccine?

More: The Possible Side Effects of the COVID-19 Vaccine

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