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article imageVariant of COVID-19 spreading rapidly through southern England

By Karen Graham     Dec 19, 2020 in Health
Families must cancel their Christmas gatherings and most shops have to close in London and much of southern England, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said Saturday as health officials work to curb a rapidly spreading COVID-19 variant.
Earlier this month, a three-tiered system of restrictions was put in place across England intended to help curb the spread of the coronavirus following a month-long lockdown.
Millions of people across the country were placed into “Tier 3” at the time, but London was put into the second-highest tier of restrictions. Last week, London and parts of Essex and Hertfordshire moved into “Tier 3."
But on Saturday, Johnson said that London and other areas in southern England under Tier 3, the highest level of coronavirus restrictions, will move to an even stricter new Tier 4 that requires non-essential shops, hairdressers, and indoor leisure venues to close after the end of business hours on Saturday, reports CBC Canada.
"It is with a very heavy heart that I must tell you we cannot proceed with Christmas as planned," Johnson said, as he announced the cancellation of planned "Christmas bubbles" from Dec. 23 to Dec. 27 that would have allowed three families to meet for the holiday.
Johns Hopkins University reported another 28,560 confirmed cases on Friday and 490 deaths of people within 28 days of testing positive for the virus. The U.K. has Europe's second-highest COVID-19 death toll behind Italy, standing at 67,894 as of Saturday.
Boris Johnson went into self-isolation after coming into contact with an MP who later tested positiv...
Boris Johnson went into self-isolation after coming into contact with an MP who later tested positive for the virus
JUSTIN TALLIS, AFP/File
The new variant has its own moniker
UK Health Secretary Matt Hancock announced last Monday that "We have identified a new variant of coronavirus, which may be associated with the faster spread in the south-east of England. Initial analysis suggests that this variant is growing faster than the existing variants."
Hancock also said there was no reason to suggest the variant is more likely to cause serious disease, adding that the latest clinical advice is "it’s highly unlikely this mutation would fail to respond to a vaccine.”
As was noted earlier this year, the U.S.'s Los Alamos Laboratory, assisted by scientists at Duke University and the University of Sheffield in England, identified 14 mutations of the SARS-CoV-2 virus, Those mutations occurred among the nearly 30,000 base pairs of RNA that other scientists say make up the coronavirus's genome.
3D print of a spike protein of SARS-CoV-2—also known as 2019-nCoV  the virus that causes COVID-19...
3D print of a spike protein of SARS-CoV-2—also known as 2019-nCoV, the virus that causes COVID-19—in front of a 3D print of a SARS-CoV-2 virus particle. The spike protein (foreground) enables the virus to enter and infect human cells. On the virus model, the virus surface (blue) is covered with spike proteins (red) that enable the virus to enter and infect human cells.
National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID)
Viruses mutate all the time, and most of the variants die out, And once in a great while, they mutate and trigger dramatic changes. Well, scientists are wanting to know more about this latest variant of the virus, and Jacqui Wise, writing in the British Medical Journal on December 16, answered some questions about the mutation.
Wise writes that the mutated virus was "snappily" named VUI-202012/01 (the first “Variant Under Investigation” in December 2020) and is defined by a set of 17 changes or mutations. One of the most significant is an N501Y mutation in the spike protein that 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. This same theory was applied to a similar mutation found back in May this year.
Latching on: how the SARS-CoV-2 targets its human host cell
Latching on: how the SARS-CoV-2 targets its human host cell
John SAEKI, AFP
VUI-202012/01 was found by the Covid-19 Genomics UK (COG-UK) consortium, a partnership of the UK’s four public health agencies, as well as the Wellcome Sanger Institute and 12 academic institutions. Since being set up in April, the consortium has sequenced 140 000 virus genomes from people infected with covid-19.
Nick Loman, professor of microbial genomics and bioinformation at the University of Birmingham, told a briefing by the Science Media Centre on December 15 that the variant was first spotted in late September and now accounts for 20 percent of viruses sequenced in Norfolk, 10 percent in Essex, and 3 percent 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.
One issue of concern for scientists is the "striking growth" of the variant, and this needs further investigation. Loman explained: “This variant is strongly associated with where we are seeing increasing rates of covid-19. It’s a correlation, but we can’t say it is causation."
As for where the variation came from, that is a question needing an answer. It may simply be that Britain’s extremely robust virus surveillance system spotted it before other nations did. “However, it is just as likely that the mutations that created this variant occurred in the UK and that is why we have seen it first,” said Ewan Birney, deputy director-general of the European Molecular Biology Laboratory and joint director of its European Bioinformatics Institute in Cambridge.
More about United Kingdom, coronavirus, new varient, tier 4 restrictions, southern england
 
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