How Much Should You Worry About the New Coronavirus Mutation?

person with Union Jack mask

Photo: Ivan Marc (Shutterstock)

A new variant of the coronavirus was discovered in the UK, and scientists think it may be more infectious than the more other lineages of the virus that are more common across the world. So how big a deal is this? The short answer: We don’t entirely know yet.

What we know

On December 8, Science reports, scientists and public health experts saw a map that showed an area in southeast England was experiencing an uptick in cases. The genetic analysis of the virus that was spreading there showed that it was unexpectedly different from others that are in circulation elsewhere.

There is a concern that the uptick in cases may be because this variant is more transmissible than others. That’s not totally clear yet. But several European countries have now blocked travel in an attempt to keep the new variant out.

Are mutations bad?

Not necessarily. Viruses mutate all the time, and the coronavirus is no exception. Scientists are able to track the spread of the virus in part through sequencing its genome. If two people have COVID, and their viruses are identical or nearly so, they probably got it from the same place. If each of them has a different variant of the virus, they probably got it from different sources. You can see a giant family tree of all the world’s coronavirus mutations here.

So in this sense, mutations are happening all the time, but so far that really hasn’t changed anything about what the coronavirus is or how we should respond to it.

Is this mutation worse than the others?

It’s too early to say. The new variant, called B.1.1.7, is now being studied to determine whether it’s different from other coronaviruses in any important ways. Maybe it’s more transmissible than others. We don’t have proof of that yet, so we’ll have to wait and see.

Will it be able to evade the vaccine?

Again, we don’t know yet. B.1.1.7 has 17 places where its genome is different from its close relatives. About half of those are in the spike protein, which is worrying.

The mRNA vaccines that just rolled out cause our bodies to make the spike protein, and then our immune systems respond to that protein and prepare to recognize any future invaders that carry the same protein.

In theory, changes in the spike protein might allow it to evade the vaccine. But that depends on the specifics of exactly how different the new spike protein is, and whether our immune systems can still recognize it. We simply don’t have an answer to this question yet.

If it really is more transmissible, how can we stop it?

The new variant has been circulating in England since at least September 20, so it’s unlikely that closing borders now will completely stop it from spreading. Chances are, the variant has already made it to other countries. But these restrictions may, at least, reduce the number of people with the new variant who enter those countries.

Otherwise, we should continue our efforts—containing a highly transmissible coronavirus is exactly what we’ve been trying to do all along, isn’t it? Masks and distancing and ventilation would still matter, if this new variant comes into play; they would just matter more.

Trevor Bedford, a scientist who studies virus mutation, noted on Twitter that the UK mutation “deserves close attention,” but that it was unlikely to interfere too much with a vaccine rollout. Most of the viruses circulating have no significant mutations in their spike proteins. If one of the variants becomes more common, and turns out to be able to evade the vaccine, we’ll need to update the vaccine accordingly.

Remember, there is no conclusive evidence that it’s less responsive to the vaccine or that it causes more severe disease. It also seems to be more transmissible, but that question hasn’t been very well studied yet. The experts who are discussing the UK variant seem to be keeping a careful eye on it, but they don’t think it’s time to panic.