A new strain of coronavirus first detected in the UK has prompted dozens of travel bans and widespread concern about what this means for the world.
It is now the focus of intense debate and analysis, and countries around the world are searching their own databases to see if it circulates within their borders. On Wednesday, health officials in Hong Kong reported that two students who returned from the UK this month appear to have been infected with the variant. This is something that scientists have learned so far.
Is this UK variant of COVID a new supervirus?
No. It is just one variation among many that have emerged as the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus has spread around the world. Mutations arise as the virus replicates, and this variant, known as B.1.1.7, has acquired its own distinctive set.
Where is this strain now?
Outside of the UK, this strain has been detected in countries such as Denmark, Belgium, the Netherlands, Italy, and Australia. A similar but separate variant has also been identified in South Africa.
As of Tuesday, the strain “has not been identified through sequencing efforts in the United States,. Although viruses have only been sequenced from about 51,000 of the 17 million cases in the United States,” the CDC said.
“Given the small fraction of US infections that have been sequenced. The variant could already be in the United States undetected”.
Epidemiologist Celine Gounder said she believes this strain is already in the US because it has been circulating in the UK for months prior to this recent surge.
Public Health England said the pullback (using genetic evidence) suggests that the strain first emerged in England in September. It then circulated at very low levels until mid-November.
“Because this virus has already been circulating for some time in the UK, the cat is out of the bag”. Gounder said. “It has spread to other places, including the United States.”
Will the vaccines work against this new strain?
The Pfizer / BioNTech vaccine and the Moderna vaccine have shown efficacy rates of around 95% in clinical trials. But now many wonder if the vaccines would work on variant strains of the virus,. Like the one that is spreading rapidly in the UK.
The new strain could mean more people will need to be vaccinated to gain herd immunity, BioNTech CEO Ugur Sahin said on Tuesday.
“On the subject of herd immunity, there is always a discussion around 60% to 70%,” Sahin said.
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“But if the virus becomes more effective at infecting people.. We might even need a high vaccination rate to ensure that normal life can continue without interruption.”
The new coronavirus has already mutated, and both vaccines have worked against variations in the virus.
What is the impact of this tension on travel?
At least 24 countries now ban passenger travel from the UK, including Canada, Russia, Chile, Italy, Iran and Sweden.
So far the United States has no plans to enact a travel ban against the United Kingdom, Assistant Secretary of Health, Adm.
British Airways, Delta Airlines and Virgin Atlantic have agreed to require passengers to be tested for Covid-19 before boarding planes from the UK to New York, Governor Andrew Cuomo said.
But some health experts say Americans shouldn’t be traveling anyway because new hospitalizations and Covid-19 related deaths are skyrocketing. And it’s easy to infect loved ones without realizing it .