There’s a new coronavirus in town.
Well, not exactly a new one, but a worrisome mutated strain of COVID-19, which goes by the name B.1.1.7., or the nickname COVID-20.
The new strain is spreading rapidly throughout London and south-east England, prompting travel restrictions around the world on people and products coming from the United Kingdom.
“We focused on the new variant of COVID-19 identified in the U.K., and we have decided to implement new border restrictions in order to keep you — and people right across the country — safe,” Prime Minister Justin Trudeau tweeted Sunday evening after announcing temporary travel restrictions on flights from the U.K.
But how worried should we be in North America?
Here’s what you need to know.
What does a ‘new strain’ of COVID-19 mean?
It’s actually super normal for viruses to mutate. That’s why we get a fresh flu shot every year.
Scientists have already identified thousands of different mutations of the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19. While most of these mutations have little effect on how the virus manifests or spreads, some can have a big impact. Notably, new strains have been identified in the past year in Sweden and South Africa that have been cause for concern.
Now there’s this one in the U.K.
According to British officials, the new strain has been circulating since September, but only last week did they have enough evidence to declare that it was spreading more rapidly than the usual virus.
Researchers suspect this is because of changes to the virus’s spike protein, which is what viruses use to gain access to our cells
How fast is it spreading?
The new variant of COVID-19 is believed to have first appeared in mid-September in London or Kent. By the middle of November, some experts think it may have accounted for about 26 per cent of cases in London and other parts of south-east England. In the past week, experts estimate it could account for 60 per cent of all new cases in London.
Some researchers say the new variant could be up to 70 per cent more transmissible than the original strain of the disease.
“Let’s say if the current effective reproductive number is one, that means if 10 people were infected it would infect 10 others,” Dr. Andrew Lee, a public health and disease control specialist at the University of Sheffield, told HuffPost U.K.
“If 10 people were infected with this new strain, instead of infecting 10 others they would be infecting 14 other people. That’s basically what 70 per cent more transmissible means.”
So it’s spreading, and it’s spreading fast.
Is it ‘worse’ than normal COVID-19?
The new strain is just that — new.
Experts still have little information on it, but so far say there’s no proof that it’s any more deadly than the regular virus.
“What we know is the more cases we have in the community with this virus the more cases we are seeing in hospital,” Dr. Susan Hopkins, an official with Public Health England, said this week. “But we are not seeing a disproportionate number of people being admitted to hospital over the last two weeks and we are not seeing any increases in mortality yet.”
People infected with the new strain have shown evidence of a “higher viral load,” meaning more virus in their systems, but that doesn’t lead to more severe symptoms. Your body responds to a virus, no matter how much of it is in your system.
“What we know is the more cases we have in the community with this virus the more cases we are seeing in hospital.”
The higher viral load, however, does mean you’re more likely to transmit it.
“The illness comes from the immune response and how it reacts in your lungs – that’s where we know the illness really starts to be driven from and why people need oxygen,” Hopkins said. “The higher amount of the virus means that people are likely to be more infectious than they would otherwise be, and this means we need to reiterate the social distancing measures.”
Where else has the new strain been spotted?
According to the World Health Organization, the new strain has been identified in Denmark and the Netherlands, in addition to the U.K.
While a similar strain is currently spreading in South Africa, it is not the same as the one in the U.K.
The WHO is working on virus sequencing to determine if the new strain is spreading anywhere else.
Why did Canada close the border to U.K. flights?
France has halted all truck deliveries across the English Channel, and several countries have announced travel bans on the U.K. including Belgium and the Netherlands.
New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced Monday that passengers of several airlines will require a negative test for travel from the U.K to his state.
As of midnight Sunday, Canada suspended all flights from the U.K. for at least 72 hours in an attempt to prevent the new strain from arriving here.
Minister of Public Safety and Emergency Preparedness Bill Blair Tweeted Sunday that the ban could be extended beyond 72 hours.
In many jurisdictions across Canada, including Alberta, recent travellers from the U.K. are also being encouraged to get a COVID-19 test right away.
Does the vaccine work against this new strain?
Experts say it is “unlikely” the new strain will be resistant to COVID-19 vaccines currently being administered around the world. None of the previous new strains identified, such as the one in Sweden, have been resistant to the vaccines.
“Up to now, I don’t think there has been a single variant that would be resistant. This particular variant in the U.K., I think, is very unlikely to have escaped the vaccine immunity,” Dr. Moncef Slaoui, the chief science adviser for the U.S. government’s vaccine distribution effort, said Sunday on CNN’s “State of the Union.”
Similarly, there’s still research being done into whether people who’ve already had COVID-19 can contract the new strain, but experts say it’s unlikely.
Does this change public health advice?
No. If anything, it’s cause to double-down on best practices: wash your hands, keep your distance and limit social gatherings.
With files from HuffPost U.K.