British scientists find worrying changes in the coronavirus that put UK Christmas in jeopardy

UK Health Secretary Matt Hancock briefed MPs at the House of Commons in London on December 14th of a new version of the coronavirus that appears to be spreading more easily.
In the United Kingdom and several other countries, the coronavirus that causes COVID-19 has been identified as a worrying cluster of genetic changes that prompted British Prime Minister Boris Johnson to all but cancel Christmas in the British Isles.
At least 1,619 samples of the virus collected from infected Britons contained a distinctive set of 17 genetic changes, including three that facilitate the virus' transmission from person to person and improve its ability to sneak past the immune system's defense mechanisms.
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The changes in the RNA of the coronavirus were described in a report by British researchers using time-stamped genetic sequences from the virus to track the progress of the pandemic. The COVID-19 Genomics UK consortium said the "unexpectedly large" number of changes and their potential impact on key parts of the virus require "urgent laboratory characterization and improved genomic surveillance worldwide".
The same collection of RNA alterations was found in virus samples from four other countries, added the British geneticists.
Some of the changes appear to alter the virus' spike protein that the coronavirus uses to unblock human cells and convert them for its own production in factories. Two of the changes appear to make cells in the airways and elsewhere more prone to invasion, and they increase the infectivity and virulence of the virus in mice.
While both mutations were seen separately, they were only seen together in the new case group, the British researchers said.
This is a potential problem because all five of the COVID-19 vaccines that are furthest in development are training the immune system to target the spike protein. In theory, these genetic changes could alter the protein so much that the vaccines made by Pfizer and Moderna, both of which are launched in the United States, as well as three other vaccines closely behind, will be affected.
In a report last week, the British researchers wrote: “There is currently no evidence that this variant (or any other variant studied so far) has an effect on the severity of the disease or that vaccines are becoming less effective, although both questions are further studies require carried out at the pace. "
Over the weekend, a group of vaccine experts urged the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention whether the British tribe would alter the effectiveness of the Moderna vaccine, which the Food and Drug Administration approved for an emergency on Friday . Officials assured committee members that Moderna and other vaccine manufacturers will perform "deep sequencing" on these so-called "breakthrough cases" to see if any such changes have occurred.
The developments prompted Johnson to renew lockdown measures across the UK, including travel restrictions and closings of pubs, gyms, theaters and hair salons. He said the steps were taken in response to findings that the RNA changes could make the virus "up to 70% more transmissible".
"It's spreading very quickly," said the Prime Minister.
By Sunday, France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Belgium, Austria, Ireland and Bulgaria said they would ban inbound flights from the UK.
Samples of the SARS-CoV-19 virus containing some or all of the 17 changes were first detected in samples from two Britons on September 20. One was collected by a person in Kent, southeast England, and the other by a person in metropolitan London the next day.
As of Friday, virus samples with roughly the same genetic fingerprint made up 6% of all virus samples sequenced in the UK since November 1. (Researchers from the UK Genetics Consortium sequenced approximately 10% of virus samples from all British people who tested positive for coronavirus infections.)
Emma Hodcroft, a geneticist who works with a viral tracking group called Nextstrain, said the family of changes was also found in samples in Denmark and Australia, likely imported from the UK. Belgium and Italy are also following reports that the mutation was discovered within their borders.
Researchers in South Africa have also discovered infections that share some of the same changes, including those in the virus' spike protein.
Those who followed the virus' genetic journey during the pandemic quickly realized that not all changes should set off alarm bells. As with any family tree, the virus spins different lineages as it spreads across time and space, and each is believed to pick up a change or two per month.
As a result, the coronavirus has made thousands of modifications since it emerged late last year.
While such incremental changes can gradually change the behavior of a virus over time, none have been seen to suddenly make this coronavirus more dangerous to the people it infects or improve its ability to jump from person to person.
But this case could be different, warned the British researchers.
The sudden appearance of so many samples with so many of the same potentially significant changes "is unprecedented in global viral genome data for the COVID-19 pandemic to date," they wrote.
While scientists have known some of these genetic variants since September, they have become far more common in recent weeks. The researchers hypothesized that the changes may have been triggered by the virus' efforts to overcome the suppressive effects of antiviral drugs or antibody-rich blood plasma donated by people who have recovered from COVID-19.
The researchers found that changes accumulate very quickly in people who take months to clear a viral infection, as well as in people with weakened immune systems. As their infections persist, these people become incubators for multiple versions of the virus that make them sick at the same time, allowing them to swap and share their genetic variants.
Other scientists who have followed the twists and turns of the pandemic said it was not entirely clear that the genetic changes - either individually or collectively - made the virus more transmissible.
The early assessments of portability appear to be due in part to the growth in samples collected in the Kent and London area. Dr. However, Marc Suchard, a UCLA biomathematician, cautioned that population densities, varying frequencies of mask wear, and social distancing, among other factors, can all affect the spread of a given virus.
"You could say the evidence points to increased portability," Suchard said. However, to do that, the epidemiological data and laboratory tests must be carefully cleared, he said.
Along the way, he added, scientists may find that as the virus spreads, it could also become less dangerous - a compromise that has stolen the bite of other epidemics.
Dr. Arturo Casadevall, a microbiologist from Johns Hopkins University, said that if the genetic changes have an impact on COVID-19 vaccines, they will be minimal.
"I'm not alarming about it," said Casadevall.
Even changes that significantly alter the virus' spike protein don't affect many other targets called epitopes, which antibodies use to recognize and kill viruses, he said.
"In order for the virus to completely defeat the vaccine, it has to change many, many places where the virus attaches to cells," he said. "And that is a very unlikely event."
This view is shared by Trevor Bedford, a geneticist at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center who has followed the genetic meanders of the coronavirus.
"I'm not concerned that these variants will significantly reduce the effectiveness of the vaccine when it rolls out in 2021," Bedford said on a Twitter thread. "The strong immune response to the mRNA vaccines would suggest that a large antigen change would be required to significantly decrease efficacy."

This story originally appeared in the Los Angeles Times.

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