Dec. 21, 2020 — A highly transmissible coronavirus variant had been detected in the United Kingdom, leading Prime Minister Boris Johnson to shut down parts of the country and triggering other nations to impose travel and shipping restrictions on England.
Johnson was holding a crisis meeting with ministers Monday on how to go forward following Saturday’s shutdown announcement. The PM stated in a nationally televised address that this coronavirus variant may be “up to 70% more transmissible than the old variant” and was probably responsible for an increase in cases in southeastern England.
“There is still much we don’t know. While we are fairly certain the variant is transmitted more quickly, there is no evidence to suggest that it is more lethal or causes more severe illness. Equally there is no evidence to suggest the vaccine will be any less effective against the new variant,” Johnson said.
Public Health England said it is working to learn as much about the variant as possible. “We know that mortality is a lagging indicator and we will need to continually monitor this over the coming weeks,” the agency said.
That scientific uncertainty about the variant’s threat shook European nations which were rushing to ship goods to England in advance of a December 31 Brexit deadline.
European Union members Austria, Belgium, Bulgaria, France, Germany, Ireland, Italy, and the Netherlands announced travel restrictions of varying severity hours after Johnson’s speech.
Those restrictions created food uncertainty across the UK, which imports about a quarter of its food from the EU, according to the New York Times. Long lines of trucks heading to ports in the UK came to a standstill on major roads such as the M20 near Kent and the Port of Dover.
Outside Europe, Canada, India, Iran, Israel, Hong Kong, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey banned all incoming flights from the UK. And more bans could come.
The U.S. Reaction
The United States has not imposed any new limits on travel with the United Kingdom, although New York Governor Mario Cuomo has requested all JFK bound passengers from the UK be tested before boarding and a new travel ban be placed for Europe. He said that the federal government must take action now to avoid a crisis situation like New York experienced in March and April.
“The United States has a number of flights coming in from the UK each day and we have done absolutely nothing,” Cuomo said in a statement on the governor’s webpage. “To me, this is reprehensible because this is what happened in the spring. How many times in life do you have to make the same mistake before you learn?”
Leading U.S. health officials have downplayed the dangers of the virus.
“We don’t know that it’s more dangerous and, very importantly, we have not seen a single mutation yet that would make it evade the vaccine,” U.S. Assistant Secretary of Health and Human Services for Health Adm. Brett Giroir said Sunday on ABC’s “This Week with George Stephanopoulos.”
“I can’t say that won’t happen in the future, but right now it looks like the vaccine will cover everything that we see.” Giroir said HHS and other US government agencies will monitor the variant.
“Viruses mutate,” he said. “We’ve seen almost 4,000 different mutations among this virus. There is no indication that the mutation right now that they’re talking about is overcoming England.”
Where Did the Variant Come From?
Public Health England said the coronavirus variant had existed in the UK since last September and circulated at very low levels until mid-November.
“The increase in cases linked to the new variant first came to light in late November when PHE was investigating why infection rates in Kent were not falling despite national restrictions. We then discovered a cluster linked to this variant spreading rapidly into London and Essex,” the agency said.
PHE said there’s no evidence the new variant is resistant to the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine, which is now being administered across the country to high-priority groups such as health care workers.
The online journal BJM Medical said the variant was first detected by Covid-19 Genomics UK, a consortium which tests the random genetic sequencing of positive COVID samples around the UK. The variant cases were mostly in the southeast of England.
BJM Medical said a University of Birmingham professor said in a Dec. 15 briefing that the variant accounts for 20% of viruses sequenced in Norfolk, 10% in Essex, and 3% in Suffolk. “There are no data to suggest it had been imported from abroad, so it is likely to have evolved in the UK,” he said.
The variant is named VUI-202012/01, for the first “variant under investigation” in December 2020, BMJ said. It’s defined by a set of 17 mutations, with the most significant mutation in the spike protein the virus uses to bind to the human ACE2 receptor.
“Changes in this part of spike protein may, in theory, result in the virus becoming more infectious and spreading more easily between people,” BMJ said.
The European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control noted the variant emerged during the time of year when people usually socialize a lot.
“There is no indication at this point of increased infection severity associated with the new variant,” the agency said. “A few cases with the new variant have to date been reported by Denmark and the Netherlands and, according to media reports, in Belgium.”
Johnson announced tighter restrictions on England’s hardest-hit areas, such as the Southeast and East of England, where new coronavirus cases have continued to rise. And he said people must cut back on their Christmas socializing.
“In England, those living in tier 4 areas should not mix with anyone outside their own household at Christmas, though support bubbles will remain in place for those at particular risk of loneliness or isolation,” he said.