India joined eleven other countries to suspend air travel with the United Kingdom after the European country enforced a stricter lockdown to tackle the spread of the new SARS-CoV-2 strain B.1.1.7 across the country which has dampened Christmas spirits
France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Austria, Switzerland, Ireland, Belgium, Israel, Canada, and Hong Kong have also banned flights to and fro UK after a few cases were found in Italy, Australia, South Africa, Denmark, and the Netherlands. The Eurostar that runs between Brussels and London has also ceased operations.
The new variant that was first isolated in September is now rapidly spreading across UK and is concentrated across the capital city and eastern parts of England. While Prime Minister Boris Johnson has said that the variant transmits 70% faster than the other variants, Health Secretary Matt Hancock went on record in an interview to say that the new variant was "out of control" and only "vaccination will now help bring the situation under control."
An indian Joint Monitoring Group Committee that includes the World Health Organization representative to India Roderico Ofrin was scheduled to meet on December 21 to gauge the situation. While Health minister Dr. Harsh Vardhan requested people not to panic as the government was monitoring the situation, this committee along with the Ministry of Civil Aviation has decided to temporarily suspend all flights to and fro UK till December 31 effective from 23:59 hours on December 22. Any passenger traveling and arriving to India from the UK before 23:59 on December 22 will have to undergo an RT-PCR test.
How Is The New Strain Different
This new variant was first isolated in September 2020 and was found to be prevalent in around 26% of the cases in the UK around November. By December 9, chief science advisor Patrick Vallance stated in a press conference, this variant accounted for 60% of the cases in London.
Scientists working with the New and Emerging Respiratory Virus Threats Advisory Group (NERVTAG) and COVID-19 Genomics UK Consortium (COG-UK) sequenced the virus and even studied its transmissibility. The former studied the presentation by scientists from COG-UK to highlight that the VUI-202012/01 variant as the B.1.1.7 is also called demonstrates a substantial increase in transmissibility compared to other variants. As the variant is hard to sequence, the frequency so far can be underestimated. The committee also notified that this variant has demonstrated exponential growth during a period when national lockdown measures were in place.
COG-UK found that there were 23 genetic mutations in this variant of the virus leading to a different cluster of cases in the phylogenetic tree of SARS-CoV-2. So far, researchers have witnessed around 1 or 2 changes in the genomic sequence of the virus. However, this variant has over a dozen mutations in one go which makes it stand out from all the other variants.
From the 23 mutations, six of them do not affect the protein build up, 14 are mutations among the amino acids causing a change in the proteins, and 3 areas wherein genes that earlier existed have evolutionarily been deleted.
Dr. Andrew Rambaut, molecular evolutionary biologist at the University of Edinburgh, and a member of COG-UK told Science magazine that the B.1.1.7 variant has over eight mutations in the genes that code for the spike protein which help the virus to bind to a host faster. Earlier, a D614G mutation found in Europe was found to help the virus in spreading faster. This new variant that further increases the infectivity of the virus highlights that there is a lot more to be studied about this new coronavirus that emerged in December 2019.
Members of COG-UK in their written statement shared that they speculate that this new variant emerged from a chronically infected patient. Four of the 23 mutations are of particular interest to COG-UK.
A mutation in the 222nd position in the Spike protein where Alanine (A) is replaced by Valine (V) was first found to have originated in Spain and is visible in this current new B.1.1.7 cluster, says COG-UK. This mutation was introduced in UK by a traveler from Spain which led to further mutations.
A mutation in the 501st position of Aspargine (N) being replaced by Tyrosine (Y) at the Receptor binding domain where the spike protein binds to the ACE receptors in the human body has increased the affinity of the spike protein to the ACE receptors. Another mutation- P681H- a cleavage site which activates the protein and makes it easier for the virus to enter into respiratory epithelial cells is not found in related coronaviruses. Both these mutations are of utmost importance as this is the first time that both the mutations have occurred in combination. A variant of the strain with a N501Y mutation is infecting a larger proportion of the younger population in South Africa, the African Centre of Diseases Control and Prevention has noted.
The deletion of an amino acid from 69-70 position could be a reaction to the virus evading the immune response elicited by the body, say the researchers. This mutation could have risen due to the prolonged presence of the SARS-CoV-2 virus for a period of 2-4 months in the bodies of immunocompromised people affected by the virus. A 2020 paper highlighted that use of convalescent plasma led to mutations in the virus sequence as the virus escaped the neutralising antibodies. This finding that convalescent plasma is not really helpful in fighting against the COVID-19 virus is in tandem with the findings by the Indian Council of Medical Research.
The scientists, however, are unclear whether these variations have a more severe and deadly effect on individuals. The UK scientists have only observed 4 deaths from 1000 cases and they believe that this needs to be studied further. The NERVTAG also believes that this variant could be antigenically distinct (due to the mutations) from the earlier variants, thus reinfection is plausible but needs to be studied.
People need to continue following social distancing measures, wearing masks, and practicing good hygiene practices, insisted the two scientific bodies in the UK.
Effect on Vaccines
To ensure that these mutations do not affect existing vaccines that have been approved as well as those that are in clinical stages of development, scientists from US' Walter Reed Army Institute of Research are conducting a computer analysis of the vaccine on the genomic sequence that is listed online.
UK's PM and Chief scientist advisor believe that these mutations will not affect the existing vaccine. "Our working assumption at the moment from all of the scientists is that the vaccine response should be adequate for this virus," said Dr. Patrick Vallance at a press conference.
PM Johnson concurred. "There's no evidence to suggest the vaccine will be any less effective against the new variant. Our experts will continue their work to improve our understanding as fast as we can," Johnson said.
If the computer analysis show any cause for worry, animal laboratory studies will have to be initiated to determine the effectivity of the vaccine, scientists at Walter Reed told CNN.