IMAGE: COG-UK consortium

Americans Must Heed the Warning of the UK’s Mutated Virus

by E Rosalie for NOVEL SCIENCE

A new strain of the virus causing COVID-19 appeared in the UK in September. By mid-November the new variety of SARS-CoV-2 appeared in ¼ of new cases.  Now in December, that portion is much larger at over 60% of new cases. The change left Prime Minister Boris Johnson little choice but to restrict movement over Christmas. 

It’s a warning that Americans should heed. Had Johnson acted swiftly and controlled the virus versus allowing uncontrolled spread, UK citizens might have had a very different holiday season.

Uncontrolled spread can bring serious negative consequences, like a mutation that affects vaccine efficacy, unknown long-term consequences of infection, and long-term economic decline. The news cycle often focuses on death, but that is far from the only undesirable outcome in a pandemic.

The mutated virus goes by the name of  VUI-202012/01 (with VUI standing for “Variant Under Investigation”). The version sports seventeen mutations, including one to the spike protein that the virus uses to enter human cells. The good news is that the vaccine will likely still protect against this version of the virus and it does not appear more deadly; however, it clearly spreads much more efficiently. Whether that is due to the virus itself or something else, this should be taken as a warning to Americans. The vaccine still works on this model of SARS-2, but there are no guarantees. 

Often overlooked, a compelling reason for controlling the spread of a virus is the more it spreads, the more it replicates. Each time it’s a chance for a mutation that makes it even more successful in infecting and spreading among humans. Genetic changes are normal and expected, but the rate of spread in the US and the UK, along with several other countries, has been extreme. We’ve gifted the virus more chances to win the lottery. For now, the fast-spreading version appears contained to the UK.

If life seems inconvenient now, it would seem all the more so if the vaccine stopped working as expected. By becoming complacent and allowing the virus to spread out of control,  we gamble with our literal answer to this crisis, an answer we have decided to depend upon almost exclusively.

As the vaccine begins to roll out, should the virus emerge with the right changes that prevent our immune system from recognizing the invader,  that variant could quickly become the dominant strain–a strain that would need its own vaccine.

We would be back at square one. In a bid to avoid importing the virus other countries would likely ban travel to the US, although that is true of many countries already. The result would likely be increased economic harm. 

A situation where current vaccines become useless may be unlikely, but a less extreme change that lowers the effectiveness of a vaccine is not. Already the UK mutation may present a serious problem although it does not appear to cause more serious illness nor to have compromised the vaccine efficacy.

Still, if it does spread much more readily as appears to be the case, then the percentage of people who need immunity to provide protection to those without immunity, goes up. We’re already short on vaccines as it is. We would have even fewer resources to start over.

If it spread outside of the UK that could mean that other countries also need more vaccine doses. With not enough as it is, that would push the end of the pandemic out further.

Many Americans report some hesitation about the vaccine given its lightning speed development. The percentage of people willing to get the vaccine has improved according to Statista’s poll comparing attitudes from September to December.

Would we need to mandate vaccination as states have in the past? It’s a scenario that all involved would like to avoid. The combination of those willing to get vaccinated and those who have been infected may be enough to control the virus. We are so close, and yet so far.

Each time the virus replicates we’re granting it the evolutionary roll of the dice. We gambled on this virus going away. Then, we gambled on it being mild and having no long-term consequences. Both of those ended up poorly for us, even if the exact nature of those consequences remains to be seen. We should not make this mistake a third time by underestimating the virus again.

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