Just when I thought I was getting on top of the rules, with a coronavirus-compatible Christmas gift-wrapped and ready to go, everything mutated – including the new virus itself. Five days of festivities became one and, sadly, my mother-in-law now can’t come to stay. Needless to say, I’m devastated.
What’s provoked this abrupt change of policy is the dramatic uptick in detections of a new variant of the coronavirus. Called VUI-202012/01, it contains a constellation of 17 genetic changes. These are peppered throughout the viral genome but many are concentrated in the region that codes for the “spike” protein that forms the outer coat of the virus. The spike is the critical component used by the virus to latch onto and invade our cells.
Changes here have important implications. If the spike changes significantly, the virus might not be recognised by the immune response provoked by vaccination. At the moment, thankfully, scientists don’t think things have gone that far but many regard this as a stepping stone to a future variant that does have this ability. This means that surveillance is critical, so that we can keep a searchlight trained on the virus and anticipate when it’s about to make its next move.
Regardless of whether it can sidestep a vaccine, a change in the spike can also create a much more transmissible virus and this is what researchers believe may be happening right now. Data suggests that the new variant is outcompeting the original coronavirus strain, a bit like a bestseller in a bookstore. The government’s new hardcore “stay at home” restrictions are therefore intended to buy time while the vaccine roll-out scales up.
So far, half a million Brits have had their first dose of the Pfizer-Biontech vaccine and, bar a warning for those with a track record of severe allergies, the rollout has been uneventful and the agent well tolerated. Nevertheless, half a million people in the UK is still a drop in the ocean. And what none of the vaccine makers can say for sure yet is how future-proof their vaccines are. For how long will the immunity they provide last? Have we created the immunological equivalent of the Forth Bridge, that needs repainting before you’ve even finished the job? And are the reassuring noises issued from politicians – that the new variant won’t affect vaccine performance – reliable? The experiments are ongoing, we’re told, but we’ll have to wait a few weeks to find out.
Chris Smith is Monocle’s health and science correspondent. He is a consultant virologist at Cambridge University and editor of the Naked Scientists podcast.