There is a new strain of Covid-19. The covid-19 mutation is — it’s complicated, and in this case it’s doubly so because a) we just don’t have all that much information, and b) the information we do have is pretty technical. I’ll do my best to break it down, but this isn’t really my field and there’s conflicting information coming from a bunch of sources, so more than ever please take this with a large pinch of salt.
How can there be a new Covid-19 strain?
You can think of a virus as a list of instructions inside a robot body. When the virus gets into your body, it latches onto a cell and takes over that cell’s production capabilities, telling it to stop making all the good stuff it needs to stay alive and to start making more viruses instead. These new viruses go and infect other cells, which then pump out more virus, which then go on to infect more cells, until you cough or sneeze them onto some other poor sucker and the whole things starts again, assuming you don’t die in the process.
However, when it makes new versions of virus, it doesn’t always copy those instructions perfectly. Sometimes the covid-19 mutation screws up. Sometimes that screw up doesn’t make any difference — it’s the equivalent of a tiny little birthmark that no one really notices because it doesn’t affect your day-to-day. Other times, the screw up stops the virus from working, and it can no longer pass on its genetic material (for whatever reason; maybe it can’t reproduce itself, maybe it can’t break into new cells, maybe it just falls apart like that Honda Civic you had when you were nineteen and didn’t realise that a car wasn’t supposed to make noises like that just because you turned the heating on).
However, sometimes it manages to — completely randomly — make the virus better at spreading. Now, that’s normal (it’s literally how evolution works, after all), but it can be a real pain in the hole when it’s something that you’re trying to figure out a way to kill — like a deadly virus that’s been keeping us all indoors for the better part of a year.
This latter case is what we think we’re seeing now, and it’s not good news. How not good, exactly, is still up in the air.
What are these new Covid-19 strains?
The big covid-19 mutation– or at least, that’s how it seems to me — is the one that has been reported recently in the southern parts of the UK, including London. A report from the EU (irony abounds) has noted the significant changes that this virus has to the ‘normal’ virus, which basically boils down to the fact that certain ‘spike proteins’ on the surface of the virus. (You know the traditional coronavirus shape, the round ball with the knobbly bits coming off it? Those are spike proteins.) These spike proteins are basically how the virus penetrates other cells in the first place, so a mutation that makes them more effective — as this one seems to — isn’t great if you like, you know, not having COVID.
Estimates at the moment are that the covid-19 mutation can make the virus about 70% more transmissible — a change that is happening, as the report notes, ‘at a time of the year when there has traditionally been increased family and social mixing.’ The coronavirus becoming 70% more likely to jump from one person to another is bad, especially when you consider that the virus is spread pretty easily anyway, and is likely to increase the R number significantly. The R number is a measure of how many people an infected person is expected to infect. Less than 1, and the virus will die out on its own; at 1, the numbers will stay stable, and at more than 1 you get exponential growth. The current UK R number is estimated to be around 1.1 to 1.2, and the report suggests that this new form may have sent that number up by 0.4, which could be accounting for most if not all of the recent rise in cases in the UK.
The not-as-bad-as-it-could-be news, however, is that the increase in contagiousness doesn’t seem to be coupled with an increase in severity. In other words, you’re more likely to get it and pass it on, but it’s not more likely to kill you itself if you do. That’s not to say that there aren’t other problems with increased transmission; more people with COVID means more people in hospital at any given time, which is exactly the kind of thing we were trying to avoid with that whole ‘flatten the curve’ business.
What are the wider effects of the covid-19 mutation?
As anyone who contracted a case of Tiger King back in March will tell you, a pandemic has more effects than the disease symptoms. Because of the uncertainty about it all — and the fact that it’s not really one of those situations where ‘Let’s wait and see and gather data before we make a decision… oops, now everyone has the virus, our bad’ is a viable option — the UK has cracked down on Christmas gatherings. Previously, everyone in the country was allowed to form slightly larger ‘bubbles’ between December 23rd and December 27th; now large swathes of the country are locked down fully, with no inter-house gatherings, and even those outside those regions are limited to meeting on Christmas Day itself. While there’s a strong case for this medically, it’s provoked widespread criticism from people who made plans and had them cancelled with only a few days left before Christmas, especially because he’d previously suggested increasing lockdown measures before Christmas would be ‘inhuman’.
On top of that, travel from Europe has been pretty much stopped entirely — including deliveries from France. About 10,000 loads travel between Dover and Calais per day at peak times, and the decision by the French to put a 48 stop on any lorries coming from the UK in order to stop the spread of this new virus has put a big kink in the system, leaving to massive queues at ports. All of this, by the way, is happening a little less than two weeks before a No Deal Brexit takes place, which will lead to — you guessed it — massive queues at ports. All of this is still going on, which is adding an extra frisson of excitement to the UK’s last-minute attempts to produce a deal with the EU.
Does this affect the Covid-19 vaccine?
Maybe… but probably not. It would seem like a final, on-brand gift from 2020 to have a new strain develop just as soon as we’ve approved and started rolling out a vaccine program — more than 100,000 people in the UK have already had their first shot, with the next shot coming two weeks later — but as far as we can tell, that isn’t the case.
The reason for the concern is that the way the vaccine works is by pre-warning the body to attack anything that has those spike proteins mentioned earlier. The worry is that these new, covid-19 mutation spike proteins — the ones that make the disease easier to transmit — are also different enough that the vaccine won’t trigger the body’s immune system to view them as appropriately, and so it won’t do anything to protect you.
However, current thinking — in the absence of new evidence, at least — is that the changes aren’t so significant that the vaccine wouldn’t work. This may change as new information comes in, but people are largely hopeful that the vaccine should be effective — not least because a change of that magnitude may mean that it’s possible (or even likely) that catching one strain of the virus doesn’t give you any immunity to other strains. That would be a really bad situation to be in, because we’d basically find ourselves in a similar situation to the seasonal flu, where there are enough versions kicking around that we can never quite get rid of it.
What do we do?
In practical terms, the advice is still the same: listen to the scientists, wear a mask, wash your hands, stay socially distanced, and get the vaccine when it’s available to you.