What a year! Mutant algorithms followed by mutant Covid-19, both pretty scary. – Owl
“Asserting that it would be inhumane to cancel Christmas – and then doing it – sent an alarming message, potentially unnecessarily, to the rest of the world.”
Sarah Boseley www.theguardian.com
If a new virus sounds scary, a new mutating virus sounds scarier still. In Kent in September, scientists now believe, somebody with Covid was the unlucky first person to pass on a variant form of the coronavirus that is maybe as much as 70% more transmissible than the version we have been used to.
The exponential recent rise in cases now blamed on that incident and the UK government response have sparked alarm around the world, with other countries banning flights into the UK for at least 48 hours while everyone figures out what is going on.
We have the new variant, called B117, to thank for cancelled Christmases. London and much of south-east England are locked away in tier 4, quarantined from families in the rest of the UK.
And beyond Christmas and the New Year, prospects for a return to normality do not look great. Children, who were less likely to be infected by the original coronavirus, may be more susceptible to this one. There is no reason to think they are more likely to be ill, but they could be more likely to get the virus and pass it on. That could conceivably have an impact on the return to school in January.
Scientists knew about the variant on 8 December, when they reviewed cases that had been routinely genome-sequenced – about 10% of the total – to see what was going on.
During the November lockdown, case numbers dropped in most places, but in Kent, they continued to rise. There are two possible explanations for that: firstly, people were not observing the social distancing rules through fatigue or loss of faith in the government. Or, secondly, there is a more transmissible version of the virus about.
Christian Drosten, the celebrated virologist in Germany, told a German broadcaster that it was unclear. “The question is: is this virus being washed up by a coming new wave in that region, or is this virus responsible for creating this wave in the first place?” Drosten said. “That’s an important difference.”
Viruses mutate all the time. Sars-Cov-2 has done so, but no mutation has yet been significant. This time, there are 23 mutations in this one variant.
Experts in the UK on the government’s advisory body Nervtag (New and Emerging Respiratory Virus Threats Advisory Group), say they now have high confidence that B117 is more transmissible than the original. But, importantly, they have no evidence at the moment that it makes people sicker.
There is no suggestion – yet – that the hygiene, mask-wearing and social distancing rules we have been told to follow will no longer be enough to keep us safe from infection, although Susan Hopkins from Public Health England pointed out that staying 2 metres away from people and spending less than 15 minutes in proximity were notional figures. The further away we stand, and the less time we spend with people outside of our household, the safer we are.
As people mull over their lost festivities and lift a sad glass to distant loved ones on Zoom calls, there is bound to be some bitterness aimed at the government, which pulled the plug with just five days to go.
Ministers assert that they only knew about the rampaging mutant viral strain on Friday, after a Nervtag meeting. Even if that is so, they knew that cases dipped only briefly after the end of the November lockdown and that the rise has been swift and steep after that. Other countries in Europe and other nations in the UK were talking of lockdown before Friday.
The UK is not the only country with B117 cases. It may be because we do more genome sequencing than others that we have picked up so many.
Asserting that it would be inhumane to cancel Christmas – and then doing it – sent an alarming message, potentially unnecessarily, to the rest of the world.