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All You Need to Know About the New Variant of Coronavirus

Dec 26, 2020 2:18 PM 4 min read

Just when you thought the dystopian spell was receding away nicely and slowly, there seems to be another threat looming on the horizon.

On 8th December 2020, Margaret Keenan became the first person to receive the Pfizer-BioNTech coronavirus vaccine, the first clinically authenticated vaccine to have been released globally. The world cheered in anticipation of turning tides in several aspects of life that have been disrupted ever since the COVID-19 menace began, especially the associated economic turmoil.

Unfortunately the anticipation was short-lived when last week, UK authorities notified the world of a new coronavirus variant that has been observed to be spreading much faster than the original strain. India’s Health Minister said “Don’t panic!” Few hours later all inbound flights from the UK got suspended. And everyone did just that! 


What is the New Strain?

The SARS-CoV-2 virus that was first discovered in Wuhan, China has mutated from its original form into another that is now being called B.1.1.7. The latter variant, in turn, has 17 known mutations so far compared to the original. 

It was first sequenced (DNA nucleotides spotted and profiled) in the UK on September 20th but it only caught the attention of scientists on December 8th while they were researching the rapid new infection spread in Southeast England. It is being referred to as VUI (Variant Under Investigation) 202012/01.

UK's Prime Minister Boris Johnson said that the new lineage is 70% more transmissible than the other ones circulating. It is also being speculated that B.1.1.7 is already responsible for 80% of infections in London itself. 


How is It Different From the Original?

When the DNA (or RNA) of a virus is sequenced, it involves profiling and arranging the entire genome, which is around 30,000 RNA letters long. Though tedious, this task helps researchers to identify the changes in the new sample compared to the previous ones and track the spread of the virus (and also to see whether it's evolving).



Misnomer: There are thousands of mutants which differ from each other by at least one tiny mutation. However, it has been studied that the SARS-CoV-2 viruses from any two places in the world will differ by less than 30 mutations, and they all belong to the same "strain"! It's the "lineage" that is different.

The B.1.1.7 variant, post sequencing was found to have one distinguishing feature - It changes the shape of spike protein that allows viruses to bind to receptors on human cells (predominantly the ACE2 receptor) more strongly and thereby enter cells more easily. The more easily it enters human cells, the faster it replicates and the more number of people it infects.

Regardless, the following questions need to be addressed immediately:

  • Is it deadlier than the original? No evidence uncovered to suggest that so far. It spreads easily, but numbers show that the mortality rate on its account hasn't varied significantly.
  • Can the variant be detected by normal tests? Yes, by studying the positive test results for only two of the three parts - something called S gene drop out in RT-PCR diagnosis.
  • Is the vaccine going to be effective against the new variant? England's Chief Medical Officer, Chris Whitty said that there was a "working assumption" that vaccines should still work against the mutant form. 


The Rollover Effects

As soon as news of the spread came out, the UK has officially turned persona non grata among nations. Many countries have shut off their travel ties with the UK temporarily resulting in heavy devaluation of travel and hospitality stocks. Country-wide lockdowns have been reimposed in the UK.

The spread of the new virus has largely clipped investor risk appetite. Equity markets faltered globally. Crude oil futures were in a tumble (decreased by 5%) and even Bitcoin dropped by almost 6%.

The US Senate, however, approved a much-awaited  $900bn coronavirus relief package. But thanks to news of the emergent new coronavirus in the UK, the impacts of the package didn’t weigh in as positively as they should have.

The recovery of the global economy can be easily expected to stifle on account of this new development. But, this may not be the only reason why economic headwinds were witnessed yesterday. If the ongoing impasse in Brexit talks is not resolved by the end of this month, British firms will be brought under WTO tariff jurisdiction opening a whole new uncertainty of events and possibly inducing the markets to fall even further. 



Impact on Global Vaccination

According to researchers, the B.1.1.7 mutation is thought to have resulted through virus-evolution from a chronically-infected person. Even though the mutated virus is 1.7 times more effective, these instances are very rare. 

In addition, a 70% increase in the rate of transmission doesn't necessarily imply a commensurate increase in virulency. Therefore, vaccines are expected to work against the new variant in the same manner as they did with the original, without many discernible changes in the vaccine strategy currently implemented by the countries.

The way forward is to conduct increased tests and studies to get as much information as possible on the new variant's spread and epidemiology to contain it and its effects worldwide. 


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