The word is shutting off the UK, and it’s not because of Brexit, but something much scarier: a new strain of SARS-CoV-2, the virus behind COVID-19.

Last Friday, Prime Minister Boris Johnson addressed the country and announced a tightening of COVID-19 restrictions for the Christmas period, scratching the previously announced break for the holiday period. The announced measures were surprisingly harsh, creating a new “Tier 4” for London and many parts of the South-East of the country, which will not allow its inhabitants to mix with other households for the holidays. However, the sudden U-turn of the UK government, who had stated only three days prior that it would be “inhumane to cancel Christmas” was not the thing that shocked the country. Rather, the reason for panic has been the identification of a new variant of COVID-19 which is 70% more contagious.

It is a known fact that viruses mutate. Usually, these new variants die-out, as they tend to be weaker than the original virus. Sometimes they continue to spread with very similar characteristics, being very difficult to distinguish from the original strain. Very rarely, they become more aggressive.

Although new mutations of COVID-19 have been identified since last April, none of them were considered to be more concerning than the original version of the virus, neither did they require different treatments or medications.  Last month, the Danish government culled millions of mink who carried a COVID-19 mutation, and in October, it was suggested that a coronavirus variant originating in Spanish farm workers was spreading rapidly through Europe. However, the new variant present in the UK seems to be different, and more concerning.

According to the Prime Minister, the new variant of COVID-19, VUI-202012/01 is 70% more transmissible than the previous versions of the virus and causes people to have a much larger viral load when they get the disease. This is because of a series of 23 mutations that have been identified in the pathogen’s genetic coding, many of which are associated with the “spike” protein, the part of the virus responsible for binding to human cells.

“As a result of the rapid spread of the new variant, preliminary modelling data and rapidly rising incidence rates in the south-east,” the UK government’s Chief Medical Officer, Chris Whitty, stated. “The New and Emerging Respiratory Virus Threats Advisory Group (Nervtag) now considers that the new strain can spread more quickly. We have alerted the World Health Organization and are continuing to analyze the available data to improve our understanding.”

[Image description: A graph of the increased number of cases in England from March to December 2020] Via the UK government website.
[Image description: A graph of the increased number of cases in England from March to December 2020] Via the UK government website.
This higher spreading rate is the cause of the increased COVID-19 numbers in the UK, particularly around the London area. Between November 29th and December 13th, the rate of coronavirus infections in the UK has increased by 50%. As of last Sunday (December 20th), just over 1,100 COVID-19 cases with the new variant have been identified. The UK Health Secretary Matt Hancock said the new strain is “out of control”, admitting that this is “an incredibly difficult end to frankly an awful year”. 

However, let’s not panic just yet.

Current medical studies have shown no evidence than the new variant is more deadly than the original virus, or that the vaccines that are currently being administered to millions across the globe are less effective towards it. Although most vaccines do target this “spike” protein, the virus would need to mutate very significantly in order to make the vaccine ineffective, said Sir Patrick Vallance, the government’s chief scientific adviser.

While more studies are being conducted to confirm these affirmations, many countries have imposed strict border controls or even banned flights from the UK, in an attempt to control the spread of this new variant. As we speak, the European Union is holding an emergency meeting to decide on a coordinated response to control the spread of the virus. At the same time, Boris Johnson will chair an emergency COBRA meeting to discuss the UK being cut off from Europe. In addition to freedom of movement, the delivery of necessary goods such as food is of great concern to the British administration.

[Image description: A map of the countries which have banned flights from the UK since the announcement of the new COVID-19 strain, including Germany, France, Denmark, Sweden, Iran and Saudi Arabia] Via Election Maps UK.
[Image description: A map of the countries which have banned flights from the UK since the announcement of the new COVID-19 strain, including Germany, France, Denmark, Sweden, Iran and Saudi Arabia] Via Election Maps UK.
This avalanche of terrible news is the last straw for many of us, who have spent the last few weeks hoping for a calm Christmas week, where all the issues threatening the future of the UK such as Brexit and the pandemic, could be put to the side. After all, let’s not forget that the UK is set to leave the EU on January 1st and there still isn’t a deal that regulates how it will happen and who or what will be allowed to cross the border.

As an immigrant who has made the United Kingdom my home for the last 5 years, I am terrified of the situation that the country is currently facing. Nonetheless, while we wait for scientists and policy experts to examine the characteristics of the new strain of COVID-19 and (hopefully) make a decision on Brexit and freedom of movement, let’s remember to be responsible. Yes, this Christmas will be different, and yes, this new strain is scary, but all we can go at the moment is make sure we keep ourselves healthy, mentally and emotionally, and that we follow the rules set by the experts. We don’t know much about VUI-202012/01 but we know it’s transmitted the same way as COVID-19.

So, this holiday season, avoid travelling, wear a mask, and wash your hands. Be safe, and turn off the TV if you have to.

A holiday guide for the COVID-19 pandemic

 

 

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Beatriz Valero de Urquia

By Beatriz Valero de Urquia

Pop Culture Editor