The identification of a new strain of the novel coronavirus has set off alarm bells in several parts of the world. On Monday, India joined a growing list of countries that have suspended air links with the UK, where the strain is reported to have become the dominant pathogen — it also seems to have appeared in South Africa, Italy, Denmark, Netherlands and Australia. Stock markets have plunged in several countries, including India. In a world reeling under the ravages of the battle with the novel coronavirus, such reaction is understandable. And, there is no doubt that the new strain needs to be taken seriously. But scientists have learned much about the novel coronavirus in the past one year. It’s this work in laboratories, research institutes, hospitals and data centres that should obviate pessimism, even as the contagion dons a new avatar.
Viruses mutate. Though the novel coronavirus has mutated at a far slower pace than most other flu viruses, the new strain — referred to as VUI (variant under investigation) or B.1.1.7 lineage — is not the first mutant of the contagion. Earlier mutations do not seem to have increased the health risks posed by the novel coronavirus. Public Health England — the executive wing of the UK’s healthcare department — does reckon that VUI “transmits more easily than other strains”. But the agency has also pointed out that there is no evidence “that the variant is more lethal than other strains” of the contagion. So far, according to the UK government’s New and Emerging Respiratory Virus Threats Advisory Group, four deaths in around 1,000 cases have been identified. It has also said that further work “is needed to compare this fatality rate with data sets”. Though the UK’s health secretary has warned that the VUI “is out of control”, the World Health Organisation has disputed this negative prognosis. “We have had a much higher contamination rate at different points in this pandemic and we’ve got it under control,” the head of the global health agency’s emergency unit, Michael Ryan, is reported to have said.
Will the new strain bypass the vaccines that are in the final stage of development in different parts of the world? It’s too early for a conclusive answer. However, one of the protocols of vaccine development is to look at a virus as a moving target. So, safeguards against new strains are built into most vaccines. The UK’s PHE, for instance, is confident that the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine currently being deployed in the country can take on VUI. Given that the anti-COVID-19 vaccines are first generation preventives, some tweaks cannot, of course, be ruled out. Researchers, in any case, have consistently been underlining that the vaccines have to be fine-tuned. It’s this state of preparedness and the confidence amongst the scientific community that should guide responses to the new variant of the contagion — there’s no cause for panic.
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