A new coronavirus strain surging to dominance in the UK appears to spread faster despite lockdowns, prompting panic and a wave of border closures
A sign on the English M56 motorway informs drivers that all routes to France will be closed on December 21, 2020. PAUL ELLIS / AFP via Getty Images
The UK government this weekend put millions of people into stricter restrictions, warning of a mutant strain of coronavirus that appears to infect people more easily.
Several countries have also moved quickly to block travel from the UK and have expressed concerns about the new strain.
The government said the new strain could add 0.4 to the country's R-number and suggested the strain now lags behind 59% of new cases in east England and 62% of new cases in London.
Experts say the situation is worrying and needs close monitoring, but added that the exposure doesn't seem more deadly.
They also say that it is likely that the vaccines that have been shown to work against the virus will continue to work against the new strain.
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The UK has warned that it has discovered a new, potentially more transmissible strain of the novel coronavirus, which is causing the government to put millions of people under stricter lockdown for Christmas and a multitude of countries to block travel to the UK.
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UK Health Secretary Matt Hancock warned that a new variant of the virus that could be up to 70% more transmissible is "getting out of hand".
British Health Secretary Matt Hancock. Tolga Akmen - WPA Pool / Getty Images
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson also announced on Saturday that around 16 million people across south-east England, including London, will be caught in a new, tougher lockdown.
Soon after, numerous other countries were blocking travel from the UK, and some countries also decided to ban freight, which could seriously damage the UK supply chain.
Viruses are usually expected to mutate, and the variants aren't necessarily more harmful - they don't necessarily increase risk to humans or compromise the effectiveness of vaccines.
A notice to customers in the almost deserted international departures hall at the Eurostar terminal at St. Pancras International station in London on December 21, 2020 after all connections to Europe have been suspended.
In the face of this latest development, experts urge calm, warning that more evidence needs to be gathered to find out exactly what is going on and what new risks may exist.
What we know
Hancock said that this strain - named B.1.1.7 - appears to be more transmissible than other mutations in the virus, noting that it appears to have spread much faster in parts of England.
Johnson also said the new tribe could add 0.4 to the country's R-number. R is the average number of people an infected person can transmit the virus to, and an increase of 0.4 could determine whether an outbreak is successfully contained or spreading rapidly.
Government figures suggest that 59% of new cases in the east of England and 62% of new cases in London on December 9th lagged behind the new strain, compared with 28% in London three weeks earlier.
The World Health Organization said the new variant has already been seen in the Netherlands, Denmark and Australia - meaning other countries' efforts to cordon the UK off may be of little use.
As Insider previously reported, the new variant contains a mutation in the virus' spike protein that allows the virus to enter the cells of our bodies. This means that it may be easier for the virus to infect us.
The new variant appears to have developed 23 mutations, UK health officials said.
An illustration of the novel coronavirus. Reuters
Previous bans were insufficient
According to the journal Science, scientists believe that the new strain may have appeared in a patient who was infected for a long time, which allowed the virus to mutate in his body.
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