Just as we were about to kick 2020 to the curb, it left us with a couple of unwanted parting gifts: two mutated strains of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19.
News of a new strain in the United Kingdom first broke on Dec. 14, 2020, as officials announced the variant had been detected in over 1008 SARS-CoV-2 cases in Southern England. This new variant, known most widely as B.1.1.7, contains 14 mutations and a double deletion which work to give it an “estimated increase of between 40 percent to 70 percent transmissibility”, according to the World Health Organization—or, in other words, this strain is 40 to 70 percent more contagious. The good news is that it doesn’t appear to be any more deadly or severe than the SARS-CoV-2 we’ve already been dealing with. (It’s the small things, these days, isn’t it?)
Four days later, South Africa announced that they, too, had discovered a new strain popping up in three different provinces. For a split second, it was assumed the U.K. strain had already jumped abroad. However, further sequencing showed that, while similar, the South African variant, known as 501Y.V2. and B.1.351, was a totally separate mutation, unrelated to the one in England. The mutations in this South African variant cause a higher viral load, though, also doesn’t appear to be any more deadly or severe.
No one knows where either variant came from or how long they’ve been circulating, but in less than a month, the UK strain has wasted no time getting around. It’s traveled far and wide, causing England to go into another tight lockdown. It’s been found in several countries around the world, including Ireland, Italy, Australia, Denmark, Iceland, India, and the Netherlands. It’s also been lurking in the United States, first showing up in late December in Colorado, swiftly followed by a confirmed case in Southern California where the virus is raging. Other states to report cases of the highly infectious variant include Texas, Connecticut, Pennsylvania, Florida, and New York.
Last week, the WHO reported that six countries, including Zambia, Switzerland and Austria had cases of the South Africa mutation.
Though it seems almost all cases with these new variants have come from community spread, news of the new strains has sparked concern, caused panic, and resulted in travel disruptions. After the U.K. and South Africa announced their new strains, over 40 countries around the world rallied and instituted complete travel bans or stricter entry requirements for U.K. and South African travelers.
The blanket travel ban put in place by the EU in mid-December has been lifted, though countries are able to tweak border entry requirements as they see fit. For most countries, entry is restricted to citizens or legal residents only—and only with mandatory quarantine and proof of a negative PCR test.
However, U.K. travelers are still welcome in Aruba, Antigua and Barbuda, Dominica, Dubai, Maldives, St. Lucia, Turks and Caicos, and Rwanda, and is allowing entry into the U.K. from approved countries on their official travel corridor list. As of Dec. 28, 2020, travelers from the U.K. will need to test negative for COVID-19 within 72 hours of departure. Currently, travelers who have been in the U.K. within 14 days prior to arrival will not be allowed to enter the United States, though, as always, there are some exceptions.
South Africans are also feeling the pinch from their variant when it comes to travel as travelers were banned from entering several countries. However, Ireland has since changed their tune and are allowing travelers from South Africa to enter, as long they can produce a negative PCR test result. Denmark, Israel, Turkey, and even England still have entry bans. As of Jan. 9, England extended the ban to arrivals from all southern African countries. A statement on the Department of Transportation website reads, “Entry into England will be banned to those who have travelled from or through any southern African country in the last 10 days, including Namibia, Zimbabwe, Botswana, Eswatini, Zambia, Malawi, Lesotho, Mozambique and Angola – as well as Seychelles and Mauritius.”
Mutations are common in viruses, especially in coronaviruses—so, if any of this sounds familiar, it’s because we’ve been down this road before. Back in January 2020, when the pandemic was still in diapers and it was just called an epidemic, the virus had already mutated. Like the recently-discovered variants, the January 2020 variant also increased infectivity and transmission but did not cause more severe illness. It spread like wildfire, and—according to WHO—by June 2020, it became the dominant strain.
If you’re thinking, Oh, good—two major mutations right after we’ve finally got a vaccine going, well, there’s some reassuring news.
On Friday, it was announced that in preliminary tests that pitted the Pfizer vaccine against a modified version of the COVID-19 virus (one containing a spike mutation found in both new strains), existing antibodies created from the vaccine were still effective at thwarting the virus. Excellent news indeed. However, these experiments, which only used blood samples from 20 vaccinated people and only tested those samples against one virus modification, have yet to be peer-reviewed, a crucial step to determining their reliability.
It’s fair to say that 2021 has been a handful thus far—but we’re not giving up hope just yet.
CDC.gov. "Interim: Implications of the emerging SARS-CoV2-Variant." Retrieved Jan 11, 2021.
CDC. "Interim: Implications of the Emerging SARS-CoV-2 Variant." Retrieved Jan 11, 2021.