As always, the coronavirus is more complicated than we thought. This time, that might be good news.
Britain’s health minister, Matt Hancock, created what one expert called the “Panic du Jour” on Monday when he told the BBC he was “incredibly worried” about the South African variant of the novel coronavirus. The British government moved on Christmas Eve to restrict all flights into the United Kingdom from the country, the latest in a series of travel embargoes aimed at warding off the hot new thing in pandemic terror.
“This is a very, very significant problem,” Hancock said, adding, that “it’s even more of a problem than the U.K. new variant” of the virus.
But even as Hancock sounded alarm bells that could be heard across the globe, infectious disease experts from Britain to South Africa to Nebraska told The Daily Beast there’s no scientific evidence to support any panic.
Even if the prospect of an already-brutal virus mutating remains inherently terrifying.
“We don’t have data on this,” said Andrew Preston, a researcher in microbial pathogenesis at the University of Bath in the U.K.
Both variants were publicly announced in December after detection earlier in the fall—one in southeast England and one in the Nelson Mandela Bay region of South Africa. They look similar in many respects, including an overlapping mutation both have that make them more transmissible—or contagious—than previously established strains.
Still, there are some “concerning mutations” in the South African variant, according to James Lawler, an infectious disease expert at the University of Nebraska Medical Center and the National Strategic Research Institute. There is no evidence that either variant is deadlier than the established strain of the coronavirus that has already killed more than 350,000 Americans. But the South African variant’s mutations are located “at the business end of the spike protein” and “can affect infectivity and the ability of protective antibodies to recognize and bind to it,” said Lawler.
In other words, the fear—as ever—is that the latest scary mutation might reduce vaccine efficacy.
The most dire scenario: The mutations could “lead to some escape from immune protection,” as Lawrence Young, a virologist and professor of molecular oncology at University of Warwick, told the U.K.’s Science Media Centre.
There’s still a long way to go to prove that theory.
While the mutations suggest “that this variant has an evolutionary advantage over other variants,” it is “difficult for us at the moment to quantify this,” said Dr. Richard Lessells, an infectious disease researcher who is working on South Africa’s genomic studies of the variant.
Most experts agree that the new variants appear to be more infectious, but there’s a lot we don’t know.
For example, counter to Hancock’s claim on Monday morning, Lawler told The Daily Beast, of the South African strain versus the U.K. variant, “I don’t think we know enough to say one is worse than the other.”
Another concern about both new mutations: that unlike previous iterations of the virus, which were relatively unlikely to produce serious cases in young people, these might somehow hit younger people harder—or at least with more frequency. Most COVID-19 cases identified as the new U.K. variant have occurred in people under 60 years of age, according to the World Health Organization. But “this may just be a product of greater mixing of younger people in the run-up to the holiday season,” said Dr. Adrian Hyzler, the UK-based chief medical officer for Healix International—a sentiment echoed by many other experts interviewed on Monday. (“Age differences in disease occurrence are much more likely related to behavior,” noted Lawler.)
The U.K. variant has been identified in Australia; Denmark; the Netherlands; the United States, in Colorado, California, and New York; Italy; Iceland; and elsewhere, according to the WHO. It is between more than 40 percent to 70 percent more transmissible than previous circulating viruses, the organization has said. The South African variant, meanwhile, has been identified in Austria, Norway, the U.K., and Japan.
Ultimately, these new variants are here to stay. And while they are not harbingers of the apocalypse, they could make everything from supermarket visits to superspreader events more dangerous, while Americans wait for a vaccine to be circulated.
“What we’ve seen is that this [U.K.] variant is really now displacing other variants” in the United Kingdom, said Preston. “The other thing that is really key is that we’re still seeing case numbers increasing, even under restrictions that previously did appear to plateau cases. That suggests it is [easier] for this variant to pass from person to person. If someone’s breathing out more virus, you might need to space people out more.”
In other words, the current restrictions are less effective at preventing transmission of the virus as it evolves, and tougher rules—or tougher enforcement—may be necessary.
Still, the fundamentals of how this disease kills are not going to change.
“The virus still spreads from person to person in exactly the same way—via droplets, aerosols, and contact—so it is not that the specific prevention guidance needs to be changed but that these prevention measures need to be more strictly adhered to,” said Lessells.
And while one of the key alarm bells rung by Hancock on Monday was a concern that vaccines may not be effective against the South African variant, there’s hope on that score.
According to Lawler, there’s no evidence that the vaccines will not protect against these variants. And, Preston noted, “Even if they do affect the vaccine, there’s nothing we know about the way the immune system works that would indicate vaccine failure [in a new variant].”
This is another reason for optimism: The vaccines were not solely tested on the strain that first emerged in Wuhan, China in 2019. Some amount of mutation is already baked into the immunization pie.
“Most of the vaccine trials would have already been testing the vaccine across a range of variants that were circulating,” said Preston. “It’d be very, very unlikely it goes from 90 percent [efficacy] to zero.”
What the variants’ emergence does mean is that avoiding unnecessary social contact is all the more essential—even if the pace of the vaccine rollout in the United States can make that maddening.
As Lessells put it, “If we continue to allow the virus to spread, it will evolve, and we just don’t know how further mutations in the virus might change its behavior.”