After a promising week in the battle against Covid-19, in which first responders across the United States received the newly approved Pfizer vaccine, news of a new mutation of the virus running rampant across the UK arose as a stark reminder that the fight is not yet won. As health officials race to better understand this new mutation (named B.1.1.7), the situation continues to evolve. Scientists actively work to determine if the latest U.K. surge in cases is attributable to the new mutation. According to Neal Ferguson, an epidemiologist at Imperial College of London, early research indicates that this mutation may be more contagious than other strains. However, it does not appear to cause more severe symptoms or higher fatality risks. The new strain was first identified in September in the U.K. and has since been recorded in other parts of Europe and South Africa.
Mutations in viruses are fairly common, but come with varying degrees of severity. “[It’s] very important for people to know that viruses mutate all the time, and that does not mean that this virus is any more dangerous,” says Jerome Adams, US Surgeon General. While this Covid-19 mutation is by no means the first since the beginning of the pandemic, the latest mutation, dubbed Covid-20 on social media, stands apart from other mutations due to the 20 changes present in the strain, as opposed to the more common two or three changes in a mutation.
With the holiday season in full swing, news of the highly contagious mutation brought about a new wave of restrictions across the United Kingdom. While Prime Minister Boris Johnson initially planned to dial back some restrictions so friends and family could enjoy the holidays together, the latest troubling information on the mutation forced a course change and doubled down on restrictions, including halting many international flights. London resident James Fishlock says, “The news of a new variant has meant greater restrictions on movement in the majority of UK areas. Living in London means I am in Tier 4, a tier that did not exist until Saturday. What it really means is that you can not do the social things at this festive time, see friends, spend time with family plus nonessential shops are closed so it’s all about shopping on the Internet.”
As scientists continue to learn more about the latest COVID-19 mutation, there is still high confidence that the now approved vaccine will protect against the new mutation. Until vaccinations become readily available, the best defense remains to adhere to the local guidelines and restrictions in place. Maintain social distance, wash hands, wear a mask, and avoid large gatherings.
For more information on Massachusetts, guidelines go to https://www.mass.gov/info-details/covid-19-updates-and-information