Britain’s Supercharged Mutant Coronavirus Expected to Go Global
Reuters / Toby Melville
EDINBURGH, Scotland - On January 2nd, Boris Johnson was feeling pretty good about himself. After gaining a massive majority in the festive elections last year, the UK Prime Minister posted a thumbs-up photo of his grinning face with the caption: "This is going to be a fantastic year for Britain." Towards the end of 2020 - with a mutated virus in his country, Christmas canceled for millions, Brexit negotiations stalled, and nations around the world banning all types of travel from the UK - it's fair to say that Johnson's prediction is pretty far The note was composed.
Britain is in an unprecedented crisis. Johnson's terrible televised address over the weekend when he revealed that a new, apparently faster-spreading strain of the coronavirus was racing through London had a domino effect around the world. More than 20 nations have slammed their doors for inbound UK travel - seriously, France has closed its UK border for two days, meaning no commercial freight transport is possible from Europe, raising fears of immediate food shortages days before Christmas .
From Monday morning France, Germany, Italy, Denmark, the Netherlands, Ireland, Austria, Portugal, Sweden, Belgium, Bulgaria, Turkey, Switzerland, Canada, Hong Kong, Israel, Iran, Croatia, Argentina, El Salvador, Chile, Morocco, Kuwait and Saudi -Arabia announced bans. No action has been taken in the US yet - despite New York Governor Andrew Cuomo calling for new federal restrictions to prevent British flights from flowing into New York City airports.
However, experts fear it may be too late to stop the mutant strain of COVID that is racing around the planet.
Many questions about the British variant of the virus remain unanswered. Since the pandemic broke out in March, the world has largely learned what to expect from the coronavirus - but now the rulebook is being feverishly rewritten in the UK, where people face a mutated virus that appears to be much better at infecting people. There's no evidence that the mutation makes COVID infection any more deadly, but just increasing transmission would be enough to put a strain on the country's already creaky hospitals.
There's also no evidence that the approved vaccines won't work against the mutation, but that doesn't mean scientists aren't worried about this prospect. Ravi Gupta, a professor of clinical microbiology at the University of Cambridge, told BBC News: "If we allow more mutations to be added, worry ... this virus may be on its way to escape vaccines." It has taken the first couple of steps in that direction. "US Army scientists are doing their own tests to make sure the vaccine continues to work against the British strain.
This isn't just a UK problem - despite the travel restrictions, experts have suggested that the British strain appears to be spreading so quickly that it could become the dominant strain around the world. Prof. Calum Semple, a member of the UK government's advisory group, said the strain "causes more disease faster" and that it is likely to "outperform other strains" to become the most common in the world.
The effect of the mutation is already evident in Great Britain. The number of new coronavirus cases in the UK rose by 35,928 on Sunday, almost twice as many as seven days earlier. Health Secretary Matt Hancock told the nation on Sunday that the burden was "out of control".
Johnson will chair an emergency meeting on Monday to discuss the unprecedented peacetime disaster. It couldn't come at a worse time - many UK companies were already busy with hectic inventory before December 31st, when the Brexit transition period with the European Union ends and new customs regulations come into effect. It is still unclear what these rules will look like as the UK and European negotiators failed to reach an agreement again over the weekend. Johnson said during the Brexit referendum that Britain would not leave without a deal, but that promise appears to be on the verge of collapse.
The disastrous timing has also caused heartache to millions of people. Johnson had only insisted last Wednesday that the planned five-day window for the UK Christmas mix would be honored. When asked by the opposition that day to abandon the plans, he mocked the idea, saying he wouldn't dream of canceling Christmas. Three days later he told the people in London not to visit friends and family. The rest of the country had reduced its visiting window to Christmas Day alone - even though the government had told people not to use it.
Labor leader Sir Keir Starmer has accused Johnson of "gross negligence" on his allegations, stating that the need to curb the relaxation of the rules over Christmas has been "evident" for weeks. Starmer repeated one criticism of Johnson throughout his career - that he was putting off making an "unpopular" decision until it was far too late. Videos of overcrowded London train stations on Saturday night, hours before new travel restrictions were put in place, suggests he's right.
It is obvious that this has not been a "fantastic year for the UK" - and the 10 remaining days of 2020 will be on the way.
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