Nearly a year into the pandemic, the world is once again alarmed, confused and divided over the trajectory of the virus. Based on reports of a new variant of the coronavirus, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson over the weekend issued a lockdown order on most of England’s southeast region and banned or limited Christmas gatherings outside individual households. Johnson cited a study from a United Kingdom group of scientists that projected that the variant could be as much as 70% more transmissible. “When the science changes, we must change our response,” Johnson said.
New York Governor Andrew Cuomo wasted little time in calling for a federal travel ban, and in availing himself of his favorite epidemiological metaphor. “Right now, this variant in the U.K. is getting on a plane and flying to JFK,” the governor warned.
By late Monday, Cuomo announced that British Airways, Virgin Atlantic and Delta Air Lines had all consented to requiring a negative coronavirus test result from passengers boarding flights from the U.K. to New York.
City officials are also treating the variant as a major threat. Mayor Bill de Blasio on Tuesday voiced his support for a temporary travel ban from Europe and at a minimum requiring a negative test from passengers.
“I’m worried just because it leads to more spread,” he said.
But most experts say that a travel ban is not likely to be effective. “Viruses travel,” said Dr. Ian Lipkin, a virologist at Columbia University. “Ultimately, almost everything is everywhere.”
Here is what scientists know so far and what it means for New Yorkers.
What exactly is a variant and when was the one in question discovered?
Variants occur as mutations arise from the virus replicating and circulating in human populations, a natural and common phenomenon. “In every person the virus changes. It does it all the time,” explained Dr. Vincent Racaniello, a virologist at Columbia University who hosts a podcast “This Week In Virology.” Some mutations are bad, but most are neutral, he said.
Scientists determine that there is a new variant of the virus when a set of mutations become fixed.
The U.K. variant was first identified around mid-September in southeast England. Named VUI–202012/01 (for “variant under investigation”), the variant had a total of 23 mutations, considered an unusually high number. One of the mutations has been found to increase the virus’s ability to bind to host cells. But more concerning was the fact that it was linked to an increasing number of cases. In mid-November, 28% of cases in London could be attributed to the new variant, according to Patrick Vallance, the British government’s chief scientific adviser. By the week of December 9th, that number had ballooned to 62%.
Data has shown that the variant may have already traveled to Denmark and Australia.
Does the variant make people sicker?
There is no evidence yet that those infected with the variant are developing more severe symptoms from coronavirus. Both hospitalizations and deaths are lagging indicators so researchers will have to wait several weeks to find a conclusive pattern.
Is it really more transmissible?
The assertion that the variant could be 70% more transmissible comes from a model created by a group of scientists that specialize in genomic surveillance. Known as the COVID-19 Genomics UK (COG-UK) Consortium, the members collect and analyze random positive samples of the coronavirus across the country.
The strength of the group’s reputation has demanded attention from many top scientists. During a press conference on Tuesday, Dr. Jay Varma, the mayor’s top public health adviser, said the evidence from the U.K. showing that the virus spreads more easily is “reasonably strong.”
Lipkin, of Columbia University, said the British team involved in the ongoing research was “first class.”
“I’m quite confident that these people have done their work well,” he added.
Similarly, Dr. Emma Hodcroft, a molecular epidemiologist in Switzerland, said that the models used by the group are considered very accurate. And while the projection was based on early data, she argued that the estimate of 70% was too sizable to ignore.
“Even if that changes over time, it would seem to be some evidence that there might be a real effect there that transmission has increased in this new variant,” she said.
She said that in Europe there was a shifting sense among scientists from skepticism to cautiousness. “I think in the last few days, we have gotten more evidence on the side that there could be a real transmission increase with this variant.”
For example, on Monday, researchers reported that a different variant found in South Africa which shares at least one mutation with the U.K. variant has higher transmission rates. In another troubling announcement, British researchers said there were signs that the new variant might spread more easily in children.
Lipkin said that even if the variant does not increase the risk of death, he said, “The fact that you got more people becoming infected means that there’s more opportunity for the virus to grow and for people to develop severe disease.”
But even though the U.K. is considered a leader when it comes to sequencing viruses, the fact that the group did not perform real lab experiments on the variant has given some scientists pause. Their model uses data from PCR tests, measuring viral loads to determine transmissibility, a premise that some have challenged.
Racaniello said a better approach would be to measure the virus shedding from people who either have the variant or do not, and compare levels of infectious virus.
Dr. Angela Rasmussen, a virologist at Georgetown University, said she was more divided on the evidence. She agreed that only lab experiments can conclude whether the new variant is in fact more contagious, but also said that the study deserved to be taken seriously.
Rasmussen noted that increased transmissibility can mean different things. For example, does the variant infect cells better or does it simply shed more? “It’s one thing to say we know what these mutations are. It’s another thing to say we know what these mutations are actually doing.”
She also pointed out that the U.K. group has yet to release the full data from their study, which would give virologists like herself the ability to verify the results. But scientists usually do not release their full results immediately, sometimes due to privacy concerns. Still, Rasmussen said that the need for transparency should be one of the larger lessons to come from the pandemic.
The good news is that experiments have already begun and will likely yield results in the next several weeks.
“Everyone that has the capability to work on this is working on this,” Rasmussen said.
In the meantime, those like Hodcroft say that measures like travel bans and tightened restrictions should be viewed as a smart form of insurance against the worst case scenario.
“Speed is of the essence here,” she said.
Will the vaccine work against the variant? How about the therapeutic treatments?
Most experts have said they do not have any reason to believe that the variant will be able to thwart either the vaccine or the monoclonal antibodies used by doctors to help patients fight off the virus.
Pfizer and Moderna, the two drugmakers behind the vaccines currently in distribution in the U.S., announced Tuesday that they would undertake studies to see how well their vaccines work against the U.K. variant.
“We expect that the Moderna vaccine-induced immunity would be protective against the variants recently described in the UK; we will be performing additional tests in the coming weeks,” Moderna said, in a statement.
Reuters reported that Ugur Sahin, chief executive of Germany’s BioNTech which partnered with Pfizer, said that the companies will have definitive data in two weeks about their vaccine’s effectiveness against the variant.
Still, he added: “Scientifically, it is highly likely that the immune response by this vaccine can also deal with this virus variant.”
Has the variant been discovered yet in New York City?
No. But there has not been much of an effort to identify new strains in the U.S. To date, American researchers have sequenced only a tiny fraction of coronavirus samples—about 51,000 of the 17 million cases.
Given the amount of international travel, Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease specialist, said that the variant is likely already here in the country.
“When you have this amount of spread within a place like the U.K., you really need to assume that it’s here already,” Fauci said Tuesday, during an interview on ABC’s Good Morning America. “It certainly is not the dominant strain but I would certainly not be surprised at all if it is already here.”
Hours later, Governor Cuomo announced that he was instructing a state lab as well as other facilities to begin testing for the new variant.
“If it is here, I want to know exactly where it is,” he said.
New York City has already started a program to sequence viruses at its Pandemic Response Lab, which is dedicated to processing coronavirus tests, according to Patrick Gallahue, a spokesperson for the Department of Health.
He added that city health officials are also relying on analysis of viral sequences available through information-sharing networks.
How should New Yorkers guard themselves against the variant?
If there is some consensus within the scientific community, it is that the fight against the variant should be the same as the one against the dominant strain of coronavirus, by doubling-down on mask wearing and social distancing.
Government officials have been urging people not to travel for the upcoming holidays.
“Even if this were more transmissible, there is nothing different we should be doing,” Racaniello said.
Rasmussen said that regardless of a new variant, the severity of the outbreaks in the U.S. already warrants a full-throated public health response. “We are in a situation where we are already talking about rationing healthcare,” she said.
“The cat’s already out of the bag,” she added. “We should address the larger problem that’s facing us all right now: that’s out-of-control community transmission.”