Fast-moving new coronavirus strain in England raises alarms

John Bacon
 
| USA TODAY

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The bad news is that a new strain of the coronavirus racing across England appears to be more infectious than the original. The good news is it doesn’t seem to make people any more sick.

The best news might be that vaccine makers routinely take mutations into account. Seasonal influenza vaccines, for example, include a variety of viral strains already circulating and allow for some that could develop later.

Melissa Nolan, an infectious disease expert and professor at the University of South Carolina, said the coronavirus vaccine designers expected that the virus would mutate and have included various predictions of viral strains.

“These changes in the viral composition are expected,” Nolan told USA TODAY. “At the moment we have not seen any dramatic genetic shifts of concern.”

Ogbonnaya Omenka, an associate professor and public health specialist at Butler University in Indianapolis, said a variant of the coronavirus had been reported to be circulating in parts of China.

“This new strain may not be the last,” Omenka said. “I think we should be vigilant, not worried.”

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The new strain, not yet detected in the U.S., is drawing attention just as vaccines are being rolled out around the world. American health care workers began getting vaccinated with Pfizer’s product a week ago. This week, Moderna’s vaccine becomes available. President-elect Joe Biden is scheduled to be vaccinated Monday.

The vaccines are considered crucial to ultimately crush the pandemic now roaring virtually undeterred around most of the world. No nation is struggling more than the U.S., where each day brings another 200,000 infections – and often more than 2,000 deaths.

Vivek Murthy, Biden’s nominee for surgeon general, on Sunday urged Americans not to let concerns over the new strain shake their faith in vaccination.

“There’s no reason to believe that the vaccines that have been developed will not be effective against this virus as well,” Murthy said on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”

Eric Cioe-Peña, a physician and director of Global Health, Northwell Health, in New Hyde Park on Long Island, New York, says the new strain shouldn’t delay the timeline for a return to a version of “normalcy” later this year.

“I think this is still to be seen how big of a deal this will be,” Cioe-Peña said. “Mutations are random, and sometimes they fizzle out when we are expecting them to become dominant.”

Still, a virus strain that spreads even more readily than what the world already has been facing is ominous. British Health Secretary Matt Hancock said the infection was “out of control” in Southern England. 

Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who described the new strain as 70% more transmissible than the original, ordered tighter restrictions and dropped a much-anticipated relaxation of rules that had been set to kick in across much of England ahead of the holidays. More than 16 million people are now ordered to stay at home in London and southeast England, and socializing elsewhere in the country is now restricted to Christmas Day only.

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The World Health Organization said the new strain was identified in southeastern England as early as September. WHO said the mutation has been detected as far away as Australia.

Public health officials around the globe are wary and governments are taking no chances. Italian foreign affairs minister Luigi Di Maio announced a ban on flights from the United Kingdom, citing his government’s “duty to protect Italians.” Germany, Belgium, Austria and the Netherlands also banned flights, and Belgium halted train links, the lifeblood of European travel.

France and Ireland also were considering travel measures. Omenka warned that border closures are usually “reactionary” and may not completely keep out transmissions. Curbing the spread comes back to basics, he said: washing hands, wearing masks, keeping socially distant.

“We cannot pointedly predict what is going to happen regarding the spread of these new strains,” Omenka said. “We can only lean on our public health measures.”

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