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Global alarm over new strain of coronavirus

The appearance in the United Kingdom of a new strain of the coronavirus, much more contagious than the others, worries epidemiologists and led several countries to suspend their flights from British territory this Sunday.

British government scientific adviser Patrick Vallance said on Saturday that this new variant of SARS-CoV-2, in addition to spreading rapidly, was becoming the “dominant” form, leading to “a very strong rise” in hospital admissions in December.

The new strain would have appeared in mid-September in London or Kent (southeast), according to him.

“The Advisory Group on New and Emerging Respiratory Virus Threats (Nervtag) believes that this new strain may spread more rapidly,” England’s chief physician Chris Whitty said in a statement.

This idea is based on the finding of “a very strong increase in cases of contagion and hospitalizations in London and the South East, compared to the rest of England, in recent days”, says Professor of Medicine Paul Hunter, from the University from East-Anglia, quoted on the Science Media Center website.

“This increase seems to be caused by the new strain,” he added, alluding to the information provided by the health authorities.

However, “there is no indication at the moment that this new strain causes a higher mortality rate or affects vaccines and treatments, but work is urgently underway to confirm that,” adds Chris Whitty.

Concerned epidemiologists

The information “about this new strain is very worrying,” said Professor Peter Openshaw, an immunologist at Imperial College London, quoted by the Science Media Center. Above all, because “it seems to be between 40% and 70% more transmissible”.

“This is very bad news,” said Professor John Edmunds of the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine. “It appears that this virus is much more infectious than the preceding strain.”

On his Facebook page, the French geneticist Axel Kahn recalled that, so far, “300,000 SARS-CoV-2 mutants have been sequenced in the world.”

The new strain incorporates a mutation, called “N5017”, in the protein of the coronavirus “spike”, which allows it to latch onto human cells to penetrate them.

According to Dr. Julian Tang, from the University of Leicester, “this N501Y mutation was already circulating long before, sporadically, this year outside the United Kingdom, in Australia in June-July, in the United States in July and in Brazil in April” .

“Coronaviruses mutate all the time, so it is not surprising that new variants of SARS-CoV-2 are emerging,” recalled Professor Julian Hiscox, from the University of Liverpool. “The most important thing is to try to know if this variant has properties that have an impact on human health, diagnostics and vaccines.”

“The more viruses there are and therefore more people affected, the more random mutations there are” that are “advantageous for the virus,” added Axel Kahn.

Suspension of flights

Several European countries began on Sunday to ban flights from the United Kingdom, after the discovery of a more contagious variant of coronavirus that circulates “out of control” in that country and before which the WHO asked “to reinforce controls.”

Following in the footsteps of the Netherlands, where the suspension of passenger flights from the United Kingdom took effect on Sunday and will last until January 1, Belgium and Italy announced that they were also suspending their British air connections.

The German government was “seriously” considering doing the same with flights from the UK and South Africa.

Spain, for its part, requested a “coordinated” response from Europe on these flights.

These measures take place at the same time that a third of the English population begins a reconfinement, due to a new strain of the coronavirus that circulates “out of control”, in terms of the British Minister of Health, Matt Hancock.

Faced with this new strain, the World Health Organization (WHO) called for “tightening controls” in Europe.

Outside the British territory, several cases were detected in Denmark (9), one in the Netherlands and another in Australia, according to the WHO, which recommended that its members “increase their sequencing capabilities” of the virus, said a spokeswoman for WHO Europe.

70% more contagious

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson had already explained on Saturday that London and the southeast of England had to return to respect a strict confinement, on the eve of the Christmas holidays, because a new variant of the virus circulated much faster.

Speaking to Sky News, Hancock said the situation was “extremely serious.”

“It will be very difficult to get it under control until we have distributed the vaccine,” he said. “We will have to deal with this for the next two months.”

It appears that scientists discovered this variant in a patient in September.

Susan Hopkins of Public Health England (PHE) told Sky News that the agency tipped off the government on Friday, after studies revealed the severity of the new strain.

The scientist confirmed the data provided to Johnson, which establish that this variant could be 70% more contagious.

Since last week, Europe has been the region in the world most mourned by covid-19, with more than 514,000 deaths since the start of the pandemic almost a year ago.

To prevent the virus from spreading further during the Christmas and New Year holidays, several countries have imposed new, stricter restrictions.

A five-week lockdown is in effect in the Netherlands, and schools and non-essential shops will be closed until mid-January.

Italy, one of the hardest hit countries with more than 68,400 deaths and almost two million infections, imposed new measures for the holidays, between December 21 and January 6: only one daily outdoors per home will be allowed, No travel between regions and nonessential bars, restaurants and shops will be closed.

No “rush” in Brazil

In the rest of the planet, the virus continues to spread. In total, the new coronavirus has claimed more than 1.6 million lives worldwide, and has infected more than 76 million people, according to an AFP tally on Sunday based on official sources.

Russia exceeded 50,000 deaths from covid-19, according to health authorities, although experts believe that the real number is much higher. A former official of the Russian national statistical agency, Alexei Raksha, speaks of 250,000 deaths.

In Chile, new confirmed cases increased 22% in the last week, raising concern in the government about a possible new pandemic peak.

And in El Salvador, the government urged the population to comply with sanitary measures to contain a spike in cases.

In Brazil, the second country in the world with the most deaths (186,356) behind the United States, President Jair Bolsonaro did not seem so concerned about the issue.

“The pandemic is coming to an end (…) But the rush for the vaccine is not justified, because you are messing with people’s lives,” the far-right president said in an interview on YouTube.

Most countries eagerly await the start of vaccination campaigns, which are presented as the only way to stop the deadly virus.

In the European Union, they will start on December 27, following in the footsteps of the United States and the United Kingdom.

Russia and China have also started administering domestically produced vaccines on their territory.

The United States, with more than 316,000 deaths, became the first nation on Friday to authorize the two-dose regimen of Moderna, the second vaccine to be administered in a Western country after Pfizer / BioNTech.

In this context, the pharmaceutical industry has to be “very transparent” and “pedagogical” when introducing new vaccines to the market, warned the CEO of the Japanese giant Takeda, Christophe Weber.

From Diario Libre.

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