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Coronavirus: What we know about the UK's new COVID strain

A UK government advertisement warning the public to be on Very High Alert

A UK government advertisement warning the public to be on Very High Alert

A new strain of coronavirus is sweeping across southern England, spurring heightened restrictions in the region and flight bans within Europe.

So what do we know about the new virus mutation?

UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson said the fast-moving new variant of the virus is 70% more transmissible than existing strains, and appears to be driving a rapid spike in new infections in London and southern England.

However, "there's no evidence to suggest it is more lethal or causes more severe illness," or that vaccines would be less effective against it, he said.

Britain alerted the World Health Organization that the new strain — identified last week — was the likely cause of the surge in infections, accounting for around 60% of London's cases.

Just over 1,100 Covid-19 cases with the new variant had been identified as of Sunday, according to a statement from Public Health England. The strain was also detected in South Africa last week.

New lockdown announced

In response to the surge, Johnson announced a stay at home order for the capital and southeast England, until at least December 30, to slow the spread of the disease.

"We’re learning about it as we go, but we already know enough, more than enough, to be sure that we must act now," Johnson said during a press conference on Saturday. "When the virus changes its method of attack, we must change our method of defense."

"Given how much faster this new variant spreads, it's going to be very difficult to keep it under control until we have the vaccine rolled out," Health Minister Matt Hancock told Sky News.

New strain is more contagious

Virus mutations are not unusual, and scientists have already found thousands of different mutations among coronavirus samples. However, the majority of these mutations have no effect on how easily the virus spreads or how severe symptoms are.

Last month, millions of mink were discovered to be carrying a variant of COVID-19. In October, researchers also found evidence that a coronavirus variant originated in Spain and spread through Europe. However, neither of the strains were found to increase the spread of the disease.

When the UK's new strain first appeared last week, health officials were debating whether the rapid spread of the virus was due to widespread carelessness or the contagiousness of the strain itself. After further investigation, scientists found that the new strain is, in fact, significantly more transmissible.

However, the variant does not lead to an increase in cases of severe illness, and does not cause more serious side effects.

Researchers are still evaluating whether the strain will be more or less receptive to the vaccines currently being rolled out. No formal conclusions have been made, although health authorities have said that it was unlikely that the mutation would hinder the vaccines' effectiveness.

Richard Neher of the University of Basel's Biozentrum in Switzerland and Andreas Bergthaler from the Austrian Academy of Academy of Sciences (CeMM) in Vienna have said the vaccines generate an immune response against several virus characteristics at the same time. Therefore, even if one of those characteristics changes, the immune system would still be able to recognize the pathogen and protect the vaccine recipient.

"I don't see any reason for alarm at the moment," Neher said, but added it was necessary to monitor further developments.

Belgium, Netherlands ban flights from UK

In response to the rapid spread of the virus in the UK, the Netherlands banned all passenger flights from Britain until at least January 1. The ban, which took effect at 6 a.m. (5 a.m. GMT) on Sunday, came just hours after Britain announced the new stay at home order.

The Dutch public health body, the RIVM, therefore "recommends that any introduction of this virus strain from the United Kingdom be limited as much as possible by limiting and/or controlling passenger movements."

"Over the next few days, together with other EU member states, [the government] will explore the scope of further limiting the risk of the new strain of the virus being brought over from the UK," the statement said.

Belgium later joined the Netherlands in banning flights from the UK, and banned rail connections as well.

Belgian Prime Minister Alexander De Croo said he was issuing the order for 24 hours, starting at midnight, "out of precaution."

"There are a great many questions about this new mutation and whether it is not already on the mainland," he said.

Meanwhile, a source close to the German health ministry told AFP that Germany is considering banning flights from the UK and South Africa. The German government was considering a similar move as "a serious option" for flights from both countries, the source said.

lc,mvb/mm (dpa, AP, AFP)