In a manner reminiscent of the first half of 2020, the flights to the UK are being curbed as the western country battles a spike in COVID-19 cases. This is a new strain that, according to reports quoting the British Government, is "out of control". There have been hundreds of cases recorded recently, and on Sunday several European nations stopped flights to the UK, even as the WHO called for stronger containment measures.
What is this new strain?
"This variant includes a mutation in the ‘spike’ protein. Changes in this part of the spike protein may result in the virus becoming more infectious and spreading more easily between people," reads an update on the UK government website from last week. The notice quoted Dr Susan Hopkins, Test and Trace and PHE Joint Medical Advisor, to add that the cluster of cases belonging to the new strain had been "predominantly in Kent and the surrounding areas" at the time.
However the list of affected areas continue to increase. As of 13 December, 1,108 cases with this variant had been identified, predominantly in the South and East of England. This number has risen exponentially in the days since then. As UK Health Secretary Matt Hancock told the media recently, the new strain is now "out of control".
Backwards tracing using the genetic evidence suggests this variant emerged in September 2020 and then circulated at very low levels in the population until mid-November.
How is this strain different?
The new strain, according to officials, is far more transmissible.
"The evidence shows that infection rates in geographical areas where this particular strain has been circulating have increased faster than expected, and the modelling evidence has demonstrated that this variant has a higher transmission rate than other variants in current circulation," the UK government says.
Does this strain cause a more severe illness?
"There is currently no evidence that this strain causes more severe illness, although it is being detected in a wide geography especially where there are increased cases being detected," said Dr Susan Hopkins last week.
More recent data made available on the UK government website on Sunday reiterates this claim. According to this report, there is no evidence to suggest that this new variant causes more severe disease or higher mortality. However research continues to be underway.
Will existing vaccines work against this new strain?
According to officials, yes. "There is currently no evidence to suggest that the Pfizer vaccine would not protect people against the new strain," the UK government says.