DANIEL VAUGHAN: New COVID-19 strains should encourage more vigilance

Before November’s elections, we started getting reports of a new mutation of COVID-19 that was emerging in the United Kingdom.

The transformation was far more viral and left scientists with many questions on the potential lethality of this novel coronavirus. As reported by Reuters, the new strain is now causing another wave of lockdowns and travel bans in the United Kingdom and Europe.

In October, this strain was already accounting for “more than eight out of 10 cases in the U.K., 80 percent of cases in Spain, 60 percent in Ireland and up to 40 percent in Switzerland and France,” Financial Times reported. As I said at the time, in the days ahead of the election, “Whoever wins on Tuesday faces a continuing fight against the novel coronavirus.”

The travel bans are focused on preventing the virus from leaving the United Kingdom and entering other countries. The Wall Street Journal reports: “Italy and Israel on Sunday were preparing to join the Netherlands and Belgium, which hours earlier had banned passenger air travel from the U.K., while other countries considered similar moves in an effort to prevent a worsening of the pandemic before Christmas.”

However, it’s worth noting that this new strain of the coronavirus has been known to exist since September at the earliest. And in that time, lockdowns and travel bans were not in place.

The odds that this virus has already entered many of these countries enforcing new lockdowns or travel restrictions is high. That is especially true if this is a more contagious strain of an already highly infectious virus.

Patrick Vallance, the United Kingdom’s chief scientific adviser, said that by mid-November, 28% of cases in London were attributable to the new variant. In the week of Dec. 9, it was responsible for 62% of cases in the capital. “It is becoming the dominant variant,” he said, according to the Wall Street Journal. “It is beating all the others in terms of transmission.”

The preliminary research on this strain says that while it is more contagious, it’s not more likely to cause more fatalities or severe cases of the coronavirus disease, and it’s not more likely to defeat the human body’s immune responses or immunity encouraged by the new vaccinations. That last point is critical, because one of the mutations of this new strain of the virus impacts a vital characteristic of Pfizer and Moderna’s mRNA-based vaccines.

The mRNA vaccine gives “instructions for our cells to make a harmless piece of what is called the ‘spike protein.’ The spike protein is found on the surface of the virus that causes COVID-19.” The immunity is not for the virus itself, but rather that specific protein outside the virus. According to the Wall Street Journal:

The early conclusion, according to British scientists, is that the virus has mutated to change the so-called spike protein on the surface of the virus, increasing the protein’s ability to cling onto and enter human cells. These changes allow the mutation, known as N501Y, to spread 70% faster than earlier versions of the virus, early analysis suggests.

The obvious concern here is that this kind of mutation could dent the efficacy of the mRNA vaccines. That’s why it’s important to note that there’s no evidence that is true right now. The Pfizer and Moderna vaccines are both still working despite this mutation by the novel coronavirus. It’s also important to note other vaccine trials are being tested that focus on immunity to the virus itself.

The critical vaccine trial on that front is being researched by Johnson and Johnson, which announced this past week its Phase Three trials were now fully enrolled with 45,000 participants. According to the company:

Interim data from the ENSEMBLE trial is currently anticipated to be available by the end of January 2021. However, as this trial is dependent on disease events, the timing is approximate. If the data indicate the vaccine is safe and effective, the Company expects to submit an Emergency Use Authorization application to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in February.

In short, we have many pathways forward to attack COVID-19, with the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines being only the initial tip of the spear. Hopefully, by the end of the spring, we’ll have at least one more vaccine, maybe more. The longer we allow this virus to hang around without a definite answer, the more chances we give it to mutate and become harder to stamp out.

And while this new strain of the virus is a direct threat to places like the United Kingdom and nearby countries in Europe, there’s no current evidence that this version of the virus has jumped to the United States. In fact, “British officials said they had no evidence the mutation was present abroad, though scientists say a similar mutation has appeared independently in South Africa,” the Journal reported.

Tracking mutations is difficult, but we’re proving up to the task. Until the vaccines are widespread, however, continued vigilance as always is required to defeat this pandemic.