On Saturday, much of the county found themselves in a state of disarray. There was a leak to a Sunday Times journalist and then a press conference, where it was made official: The previous Christmas 'relaxation' period for indoor household mixing, slated for the 23-27 December, is firmly off the cards.
For much of the country, it is still permissible to 'bubble' with two other households for 25 December, only. In the south-east, including London, Kent, Essex and Bedfordshire, a fresh tier – four – is now stacked onto the existing three. Here, any mixing, even on Christmas Day, is forbidden.
The reason for this was an understanding that the newly found strain of SARS-CoV-2 (the novel coronavirus) was the driver of increased instances of COVID-19 in the area. 'This virus spreads more easily,' chief scientific adviser Patrick Vallance said on Saturday. 'And therefore more measures are needed to keep it under control.'
It has been stressed by politicians and scientists that clinical advice suggests that it is 'highly unlikely' that this mutation will not be thwarted by the vaccine – and that there is currently nothing to suggest that it causes a more serious form of COVID-19. The potential velocity with which it may spread, however, is troubling.
It's been estimated that the mutation, VUI – 202012/01, maybe as much as 70% easier to transmit, between people. This number is derived from modelling, but has not been confirmed via lab data. The true figure could be lower or higher.
'The information that the government has just issued about this new variant coronavirus is of great concern. It is right to take it seriously; although there are only 23 mutations [more mutations means more potential problems] in the genetic code, the variant does seem about 40-70% more transmissible,' said Prof Peter Openshaw, past-President of the British Society for Immunology and Professor of Experimental Medicine at Imperial College London.
How does the new coronavirus strain work?
The new strain was first discovered in mid-September, according to the World Health Organisation (WHO). The area of mutation is the virus's 'spike protein.' Now, this matters because the 'spike' is how the virus slices into our cells and thus infects us. It appears that a mutation here is what has allowed the new strain to spread, faster.
So, what could all of this mean? Here is what some of the UK's leading experts have to say.
The expert reaction to the new coronavirus strain
Dr Stephen Griffin, Associate Professor in the School of Medicine, University of Leeds, said:
'The new SARS2 variant may well be cause for significant concern, and all the more reason to be vigilant. However, that it has taken an event of this nature to provoke a reaction from the government says more about the current scenario in the UK and the long term view of how this came to be, rather than the naturally upsetting and disappointing false promises over Christmas that have now been revoked.
'It is clear that failure to make good on the sacrifices made during the first lockdown, suppress infection rates over summer, and replace the failed corporate TTI system has led directly to the resurgence seen since September, the need for a second (and likely a third) lockdown, and ultimately an environment in which SARS-COV-2 is able to thrive and evolve. Half-baked policies neither restore socio-economic harms, nor suppress infections, and the reactionary, fragmented and confusing implementation of Tiers along with their obscure criteria has led to public favour eroding day by day. We are left at the mercy of misinformation and fringe viewpoints.
'Nevertheless, if it takes the new variant to finally convince our leaders to implement an effective suppression strategy along with the long-recommended safeguarding on TTI, quarantine and internal travel, then so be it. We cannot simply stand by and wait for vaccines to rescue the situation, the human cost has already been far too high.'
Prof Peter Openshaw, past-President of the British Society for Immunology and Professor of Experimental Medicine at Imperial College London, said:
'The information that the government has just issued about this new variant coronavirus is of great concern. It is right to take it seriously; although there are only 23 mutations in the genetic code of 30,000 nucleotides the variant does seem about 40-70% more transmissible.
'The doubling time is now at just 6 or 7 days so it is really vital that we get this under control. The spread of this new variant has been associated with an increase in hospitalisation, especially in Kent and London; however, there is no evidence at the moment that the new variant causes disease which is any different from that caused by previous variants.
'It is a tribute to the genomic surveillance by COG-UK that the variant has been detected so quickly. The reasons for the enhanced infectivity are not yet clear. We need to know if it is due to more viral replication or better binding to the cells that line the nose and lung. There is currently no direct evidence that the virus is able to evade immunity generated by past infection or by vaccination, but there is good reason to think it won’t. All this needs to be investigated.
'It is also remarkable that 350,000 people have already received the first dose of the Pfizer/BioNTech Vaccine. It is vital that vaccination is ramped up as fast as possible to control the effects of infection on the most vulnerable, and to get front-line workers protected. I absolutely urge everyone being offered vaccination to get vaccinated.
'This holiday period is important to all of us and we are all devastated to hear this news. However, now is the time to reunite in the fight against the virus rather than arguing between ourselves. Let’s enjoy Christmas as best we can, and celebrate again in the spring and summer when we hope all this will be over.'
Dr Simon Clarke, Associate Professor of Cellular Microbiology, University of Reading:
'Health Secretary Matt Hancock has linked the discovery of a mutation in the virus’ spike protein to increased transmission; while that is yet to be verified, it would be of grave concern if it indeed proves to be the case.
'While Hancock states that there is “nothing to suggest” this variant will cause more serious disease, if it spreads more readily than other versions, infecting more people, it could eventually take a bigger toll on human health.'
Prof Wendy Barclay, Head of the Department of Infectious Disease, Imperial College London:
'SARS CoV2 is an RNA virus and mutations are expected to occur as it replicates. It is essential that we understand the consequence of any changes in the genome of the virus – for example, how this might impact on disease, transmission and the immune response to the virus.
'Some variants with changes in the Spike protein have already been observed as the virus is intensely sequenced here in the UK and around the world. There is no evidence that the newly-reported variant results in a more severe disease. This variant contains some mutations in Spike protein that is the major target of vaccines, and it will be important to establish whether they impact vaccine efficacy by performing experiments in the coming weeks.'
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