Scientists urge concern, not alarm over new virus strains – health

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Does it spread more easily? Make people sicker? Intent that treatments and vaccines won’t work? Questions are multiplying as fast as new strains of the coronavirus, particularly the one now moving through England. Scientists say there is reason for concern but that the new strains must not cause alarm.

“There’s zero evidence that there’s any increase in severity” of Covid-19 from the newest strain, the World Health Association’s emergencies chief, Dr. Michael Ryan said Monday.

“We don’t wish to overreact,” the U.S. government’s top infectious disease expert, Dr. Anthony Fauci, told CNN.

Worry has been growing since Saturday, when Britain’s prime minister said a new strain, or variant, of the coronavirus looked as if it would spread more easily than earlier ones and used to be moving swiftly through England. Dozens of countries barred flights from the U.K., and southern England used to be placed under strict lockdown measures.

Here are some questions and answers on what’s known approximately the virus so far.

Q: Where did this new strain come from?

A: New variants have been seen nearly since the virus used to be first detected in China almost a year ago. Viruses frequently mutate, or develop small changes, as they reproduce and move through a population — something “that’s natural and expected,” WHO said in a commentary Monday.

“Lots of the mutations are trivial. It’s the change of one or two letters in the genetic alphabet that doesn’t make much difference in the ability to bring disease,” said Dr. Philip Landrigan, a former Centers for Disease Regulate and Prevention scientist who directs a global health program at Boston College.

A more concerning situation is when a virus mutates by changing the proteins on its surface to help it escape from drugs or the immune system, or whether it acquires numerous changes that make it very different from preceding versions.

Q: How does one strain grow to be dominant?

A: That can happen whether one strain is a “founder” strain — the first one to take hold and start spreading in an area, or because “super spreader” events helped it grow to be established.

It also can happen whether a mutation gives a new variant an virtue, such as helping it spread more easily than other strains that are circulating, as is also the case in Britain.

“It’s more contagious than the original strain,” Landrigan said. “The reason it’s fitting the dominant strain in England is because it out-competes the other strains and moves faster and infects more people, so it wins the race.”

Moncef Slaoui, the chief science adviser for the U.S. government’s Covid-19 vaccine crusade, said scientists are still working to confirm if the strain in England spreads more easily. He said it’s also conceivable that “seeding” of hidden cases “happened in the shadows” before scientists started searching for it.

The strain used to be first detected in September, WHO officials said.

Q: What’s worrisome approximately it?

A: It has many mutations — almost two dozen — and eight are on the spike protein that the virus uses to attach to and contaminate cells. The spike is what vaccines and antibody drugs target.

Dr. Ravi Gupta, a virus expert at the University of Cambridge in England, said modeling studies propose it can be up to two times more infectious than the strain that’s been most common in England so far. He and other researchers posted a outline of it on a website scientists use to quickly share developments but it has not been formally reviewed or published in a publication.

Q: Does it make people sicker or much more likely to die?

A: “There’s no indication that either of those is true, but clearly those are two issues we’ve got to watch,” Landrigan said. As more patients get infected with the new strain, “they’ll realize moderately soon whether the new strain makes people sicker.”

A WHO outbreak expert, Maria Van Kerkhove, said Monday that “the information that we have got so far is that there isn’t a change” in the type of illness or its severity from the new strain.

Q: What do the mutations intent for treatments?

A: A few cases in England raise concern that the mutations in one of the crucial emerging new strains could hurt the potency of drugs that provide antibodies to block the virus from infecting cells.

“The studies on antibody response are currently under way. We expect leads to coming days and weeks,” Van Kerkhove said.

One drugmaker, Eli Lilly, said that tests in its lab the usage of strains that contain the most concerning mutation propose that its drug remains fully active.

Q: What approximately vaccines?

A: Slaoui said the presumption is that current vaccines would still be effective against the variant, but that scientists are working to confirm that.

“My expectation is, this might not be a problem,” he said.

United Kingdom officials have said “they don’t imagine there is affect on the vaccines,” Van Kerkhove said.

Vaccines induce broad immune system responses but even so just prompting the immune system to make antibodies to the virus, so they’re expected to still work, several scientists said.

Q: Can trip restrictions do any good?

A: Landrigan thinks they may be able to.

“Whether the new strain is indeed more contagious than the original strain, then it’s very, very sensible to confine trip,” he said. “It’s going to slow things down. Any time you’ll be able to break the chain of transmission you’ll be able to slow the virus down.”

CNN quoted Fauci as saying that he used to be not criticizing other countries for suspending trip to England but that he would not advise the USA to take any such step.

The presence or extent of the new strain in the USA is unknown presently.

Q: What can I do to minimize my risk?

A: Follow the advice to wear a mask, wash your hands frequently, take care of social distance and keep away from crowds, public health experts say.

“The key is we want to suppress transmission” of all virus strains that can cause Covid-19, said the WHO’s director-general, Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus.

“The more we allow it to spread, the more mutations will happen.”

(This story has been published from a wire agency feed without modifications to the text.)

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