Saturday, Dec. 19, 2020

The column I wrote on Day 279 is now out of date, which is what we’ve come to expect with COVID. A new faster-spreading strain of coronavirus was identified in England on Dec. 13, 2020. So the relaxation of lockdown rules for Christmas has been reversed. As Prime Minister Boris Johnson said today, “We cannot continue with Christmas as planned.” (BBC, Dec. 19, 2020). Yesterday’s plan: Three households can mix indoors and stay over night in homes over five days from December 23-27. Today’s plan: for most of England the five days has been reduced to one day. In the most affected areas (tier four), i.e. London and south-east England, no travel and no mixing with anyone outside your own household on Christmas. As Scrooge would say, “Bah Humbug!”

Christmas at Trafalgar Square, London, Dec. 2019

Like any other virus, COVID mutates constantly. Meaning that as it replicates it generates small changes in its genetic composition, most of which are not significant. (See “Pandemic Day 240: Mutant,” https://historysedge.wordpress.com/2020/11/07/pandemic-day-240-mutant/ ). When investigators find a distinct and persistent combination of genetic changes they call it a “strain.” They begin to look at whether the changed genome affects the behavior of the virus towards us in regard to contagion, antibody resistance, or severity to disease. This is where we are in regard to the new strain in England.

Or new variant. Although news sources in the U.S. are calling it a new strain, the BBC, COG-UK, and other British sources are using the word variant, which seems to amount to the same thing. COG-UK, a consortium of research and educational institutions (https://www.cogconsortium.uk/ ) has developed software to compare genomes, enabling it to identify genetic changes in the SARS-CoV-2 virus in the UK by sequencing about 10 % of all positive cases. COG-UK defines variant as: “a distinct virus, which may have a combination of different mutations.” Part of COG-UK’s mission at this time is to identify defensive mutations which may arise as the virus responds to the new vaccines.

The new variant spoiling Christmas in England today has developed a set of 23 mutations in the spike protein which is the protein that enables the virus to bind to the ACE2 receptor in humans. The ACE2 receptor, found on many cells throughout the body, is the point of entrance for the COVID virus. The variant virus, named “VUI-202012/01” for “the first Variant Under Investigation in December 2020,” is spreading as much as 70% faster, which makes it a matter of urgency to learn more about it while limiting its spread.

It’s faster, but is that all?

It is now up to the UK Public Health Agencies to determine the impact of the new variant on public health. Does it cause the disease to be more severe? Is it more resistant to antibodies, which may make it harder for our immune system or vaccines to fight it? Did it originate in the UK or is it found in other countries as well? We will have more information soon. Never has viral research been carried out in such a public way.

It might help to know that we have experience new strains already. The mutation that changed the spike’s protein’s 614th amino acid from D to G earlier this year may have helped the virus spread faster. This strain is now predominant worldwide. Back in October, a new strain of COVID in Denmark began to spread in mink and then, in its changed form, back to humans, where it appeared to have more resistance to antibodies. Mink farms throughout Europe culled their stock. When a pandemic virus is identified, researching new strains is clearly a matter of international concern.

Strain or variant? The Guardian, a UK publication, has apparently decided to be neutral and use both: “What is the new Covid strain – and will vaccines work against it?” they ask, adding, “Testing of the new variant will take weeks, but scientists don’t expect it to cause more severe disease or be resistant to the vaccine.” Take your pick.

Today’s Notable Headlines

“Millions forced to cancel Christmas as ‘new variant’ of coronavirus spreads in U.K.” NBC News, Dec. 19, 2020. https://www.nbcnews.com/news/world/uk-prime-minister-boris-johnson-calls-emergency-meeting-over-new-n1251803

“Why You Shouldn’t Freak Out About the New Strain of Coronavirus,” Healthline, Dec. 19, 2020. https://www.healthline.com/health-news/why-you-shouldnt-freak-out-about-the-new-strain-of-covid-19

“Update on new SARS-CoV-2 variant and how COG-UK tracks emerging mutations,” COG-UK (COVID-19 Genomics UK Consortium), Dec. 14, 2020. https://www.cogconsortium.uk/news_item/update-on-new-sars-cov-2-variant-and-how-cog-uk-tracks-emerging-mutations/

“PHE investigating a novel strain of COVID-19,” GOV.UK, Dec. 14, 2020. https://www.gov.uk/government/news/phe-investigating-a-novel-strain-of-covid-19

“What is the new Covid strain – and will vaccines work against it? Testing of the new variant will take weeks, but scientists don’t expect it to cause more severe disease or be resistant to the vaccine.” The Guardian, Dec. 19, 2020. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/dec/19/what-is-the-new-covid-strain-and-will-vaccines-work-against-it

Why am I doing this?

The coronavirus pandemic will be indelibly written on our memories just as the Great Depression or the Battle of Britain left their mark on past generations. It is my intention to journal the pandemic experience from three perspectives: as a retired medical technologist, a historian (Ph.D., 2014), and an ordinary person living through an extraordinary crisis.

You are on History’s Edge.

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