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New Coronavirus Variant Found In U.K. What Does It Mean For The World?

Julia Reihs

The virus behind COVID-19 is mutating and that's to be expected; many viruses do as they spread throughout the world. But parts of the United Kingdom are now under severe public health restrictions, and travel is being limited out of the U.K. because one variant of the coronavirus has become dominant in parts of the country.

That has led scientists to suspect this variant may somehow be more infectious, and they're trying to figure out whether or not this strain causes more serious disease.

Vineet Menachery studies coronaviruses at the University of Texas –Medical Branch. He joins NPR's Ari Shapiro to help us understand the risk.

This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.

Ari Shapiro: What leads scientists to believe that this new variant may be more infectious?

Vineet Menachery: Well, I think the key here is that when we are observing – the UK has one of the best observation systems for looking at sequences – and so what they've found is that this new variant has begun to dominate the number of infections that they've seen. Going from 30 percent in November to about 60 percent now. And so it is the most common variant that they're seeing. That really argues that it is likely more transmissible.

And does that worry you? I mean, what would be your threshold for being really concerned?

So this isn't the first time we've seen variants emerge quickly or begin to dominate the population of viruses that we're seeing. And so I'm not particularly worried at this moment. There is evidence that it is maybe slightly more transmissible, but we're not at this point knowing enough about it to really be scared in the sense that it's a different order of magnitude, that it's going to be a major threat moving forward.

So some evidence that it may be more transmissible. Is there any evidence that it may be more serious, make people sicker and more severe?

No, as far as I can tell and from the data that we've seen so far, there's no evidence that the disease is fundamentally different. It may be slightly more transmissible, but it seems to cause about the same amount of severity. Unfortunately, we won't know that for probably another month as it takes a while for COVID disease to really manifest.

And this comes as a couple of vaccines are being rolled out; others are being developed. Is there any reason to fear that these vaccines will not work as effectively against this new variant as against the variant that they were developed with?

It's unlikely. Vaccines that have been developed are really generated to generate a broad response. And so the vaccine uses our immune system to target multiple parts of the virus. And so in this case, we may have one or two parts that are different, but we're targeting with the vaccine, the multiple parts. And so it's it's really difficult for a virus to overcome that in the short amount of time like we're talking about here. Over years, you may be more likely to see that. But in the short term, I don't think these vaccines will be ineffective against this new variant.

Well, that's reassuring. What about treatments? If people do get sick, could a mutation make the virus less receptive to things like the antibody treatments that President Trump received, perhaps?

Yeah. So specifically the monoclonal antibody treatments that have been developed target specific areas on the spike protein of a coronavirus. Changes that target those locations may be really important. Each antibody really targets a different location. And so the combination treatments are really important that you use multiple antibodies that target different sites on the spike. And so that makes it less likely you can overcome it. If you have one antibody, it's more that easy for the virus to overcome that by changing that one location.

Interesting. Just briefly, we get a new flu virus every year to account for variations in that disease. Do you expect we'll see the same thing with this coronavirus.

Flu and viruses are very different in how much they change over time. And so the fact that coronaviruses change a little bit compared to flu, it should take quite a bit longer for coronaviruses to overcome. I wouldn't expect that we'd see a change every year. It may be every two to three years that we need a vaccine to change a little bit.

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