If you are being kept awake by the news of the new mutant strain of the SARS-CoV-2 virus spreading “like wildfire” in the UK, and the associated sound of borders around the world slamming shut, you probably shouldn’t visit the website of the Nextstrain project (https://nextstrain.org). Viruses such as SARS-CoV-2 mutate all the time – not deliberately or even cunningly, as some apocalyptic recent coverage seems to imply, but as an inevitable accidental byproduct of the often error-strewn process of viral genome replication. It is these errors that create the markers that allow scientists to track where different strains of viruses originate, and how they spread.
Nextstrain is a collaboration of international genomic epidemiologists who for the past year have been tracking and analyzing over 75,000 sequences of the virus that have been shared by scientists around the world. Each day hundreds of additional profiles are added to this genomic library – reflecting the hundreds of mutations of the virus emerging daily.
Together, what the many thousands of variants of the virus so far sampled tell us is conveyed dramatically in an animation on the Nextstrain website, which shows a selection of 3,611 evolutions of the original virus traced to Wuhan in December 2019 spreading out around the world like the rapidly growing roots of a tree.
At the end of one of those roots can be found the strain B.1.1.7, which was first detected in a sample isolated in the UK on September 2.
Such mutations of the SARS-CoV-2 virus, which are extremely common in the natural evolution of all viruses, have been recorded in over 130 countries, including the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Iraq, Iran, Israel, Oman, Pakistan and India. There have been over 750 new strains recorded in the US alone.
It’s true that the new strain identified in the UK contains rather more mutations than most – 17, in fact.
It is also true that B.1.1.7 is rapidly becoming the most dominant form of the virus in the UK. By the middle of November, it accounted for 28 percent of all new cases in London and the southeast of England. By the week beginning December 9, its dominance had risen to 62 percent in the capital city, 43 percent in the southeast and 59 percent in the east of England.
Cue the sound of dozens of borders across Europe and beyond slamming shut to travelers from the UK. Other countries, including Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Oman, are closing their borders to allcomers and suspending all commercial flights, just in case.
It may already be too late. The strain has also been detected in locations as far apart as Denmark and the Netherlands and Australia. These are countries that have large genome sequencing initiatives under way and more cases are certain to emerge elsewhere in the world before very long.
None of the countries scrambling to seal their borders can be blamed for acting out of an excess of caution. Saudi Arabia, for example, has successfully driven down the number of daily new cases from a high of 4,919 in June to just 168 on December 21. The last thing that such countries want is to see an uptick in the number of cases on the scale currently being witnessed in the UK.
In April, the UK was suffering a peak of over 5,000 cases a day, but by July, following a stringent lockdown, the pandemic appeared to be on the run, with a low of 404 new cases and 54 deaths on June 30. Since then, however, something has gone badly wrong – on December 20 there were a staggering 36,084 new cases, and 326 deaths.
The temptation, of course, is to blame the new strain of the virus, which appears to spread more easily than its forebears, probably on account of several mutations that appear to improve its ability to bind to and enter cells. That, certainly, would account for its rising dominance in the UK.
But in the flurry of “mutant virus” stories currently doing the rounds, several important factors are being overlooked. As things stand, there is no evidence whatsoever that this new strain of the virus causes a more severe form of the disease Covid-19, or leads to more hospitalizations, than any other strain that has emerged. There is also no evidence that the new strain alters the body’s immune responses, which means it is just as vulnerable to the vaccines now coming on stream as any other variant of SARS-CoV-2.
B.1.1.7 has not, in other words, mysteriously developed a way to beat the simple but effective precautions with which we are all now so wearily familiar – diligently washing hands, wearing masks in public, keeping our distance from others and avoiding gatherings of people outside our bubbles.
In the UK the public health response throughout the pandemic has been compromised by politically motivated indecision, half-measures and demoralizing U-turns, the latest being a confusing series of semi-lockdowns, varying from region to region, and a last-minute reversal of plans, widely condemned by scientists, to relax restrictions over the Christmas period.
The British government’s insistence that schools should stay open, rather than reverting to online learning, might also prove to have been a terrible mistake. So far, children have proved fairly resistant to catching SARS-CoV-2. But one prominent government adviser has now suggested that the new strain may make children “as equally susceptible as adults.”
B.1.1.7 was first detected on September 2, but the number of new daily cases in the UK had been increasing since the beginning of July. In other words, with or without the impetus of its new strain, thanks to ineffective public-health policies SARS-CoV-2 was already making a major comeback in the UK. All B.1.1.7 has done is allow it to exploit the weaknesses in the country’s defenses even more effectively.
The near-hysteria surrounding the B.1.1.7 strain is misplaced. It has not made SARS-CoV-2 more deadly or more vaccine-resistant. What it has done, however, is highlight that, even with the vaccine cavalry galloping over the horizon, the battle against this virus is far from over – and that countries that drop their guard prematurely, as the UK has plainly done, can expect to pay a heavy price.
Jonathan Gornall is a British journalist, formerly with The Times, who has lived and worked in the Middle East and is now based in the UK.