UK coronavirus mutation ‘not surprising’, says expert

Professor Howard Howard of the Yale School of Public Health discusses the new strain of coronavirus in the UK with Yahoo Finance Live.
Video transcript
JULIE HYMAN: Let's talk about how seriously we should take this new strain. And for that I want to Dr. Call in Howard Forman. He is a professor at the Yale School of Public Health. Our Anjalee Khemlani also joins us. Dr. Forman has been a frequent guest on the show to help us figure out what is real and what is not when it comes to COVID-19 information.
So Dr. Forman, how should we read? We know there are a lot of pressures right? Viruses tend to have many strains, especially new ones as they develop. And how, for example, do you even get this 70% faster spread?
HOWARD FORMAN: Yes. Look, we know viruses mutate. We know that RNA viruses mutate faster than others. And we know this particular virus has mutated all along. I think there are two things that got people's attention. One is whether it is actually more contagious than the other strains. It is certainly possible that it is. But it is also not certain whether it is so.
One of the possibilities is that people may experience greater infectivity just because the UK has just lifted the lockdown. They started to spread more and you had an increase in cases that might reflect this new variant. So we don't know exactly if this is more contagious. That's number one.
Number two, there's no evidence it's more virulent. There is no evidence that this leads to any more severe illness or death. And I think the other most important thing right now is that people stuck with this idea that the spike protein is mutated. And the spike protein, as we know, is how the virus gets into cells. And so, by this point, we've made all of our vaccines targeted for the spike protein. There is no evidence that this change is currently making our vaccines less effective.
So for me, these are very important to remember when humility must come first. We know very, very little. We shouldn't panic about this.
ANJALEE KHEMLANI: Dr. Forman, Anjalee here. It looks like - it sounds more like we're really waiting for more information. This mutation needs further investigation. At the same time, however, there have been reports that it may not be easy to spot, which could also be cause for concern. How long will it be before we may have a better sense of what we really need to know about it, considering we saw some mutations earlier this year, especially in Seattle?
HOWARD FORMAN: Look, we've seen mutations. I think virologists have said we get one or two mutations a month or maybe a little more. So it's not surprising that we see this. None of this suggests any reason to panic.
I understand the reason people are concerned. Britain is acting very forcefully. But even if you didn't know which variant is just coming out, if you've seen the top in cases in the UK, you could act more forcefully. So we have to remember that first.
And number two, the way the vaccine works, as opposed to how monoclonal antibodies work, is that we make many, many different antibodies to the virus and the spike protein in our own bodies. And those changes, these very modest changes in the spike protein right now, aren't enough to cause us to worry that a vaccine might stop working or even be highly effective.
- So, Dr. Forman, in light of this, it is perhaps irresponsible of the legislature to go out and broadcast, there is a mutation and now we are taking these measures because I think, as you outline, it is difficult for the public to sift through all these nuances that You explained to us.
HOWARD FORMAN: Yes. Look, I can't judge their decision-making right now because if you look at the UK they have a very accelerated outbreak. So I don't think you can look at it in a vacuum and say that they are blocked because of the variant. They lock up because they have an accelerated outbreak.
And I think in the next days or weeks people will understand a lot better if this is really more contagious, if there are other reasons to worry. And we've got to the point where the vaccination is starting to wear off, maybe not as fast as we'd like, but in both the UK and the US it will gradually wear off.
ANJALEE KHEMLANI: Speaking of vaccinations, Dr. Forman, I know this has been viewed as some sort of thing that will help dampen the curve and dampen the overall spread of the virus. You received the vaccine and I know you took part in one of the studies. Can you tell us how you are feeling right now and how was the experience?
HOWARD FORMAN: Yes. Look, so I was in the Pfizer trial. I mentioned this earlier on your show. And in September, I got two doses of what appeared to be normal saline, which means I got a placebo. And so they unblinded the study last week, and on Friday they gave me the option to get the actual vaccine and stay within the study but get the vaccine and effectively move on to the study vaccine arm.
On the evening of that day when I was working in the emergency room, I had the slightest pain in my arm that was felt but didn't interfere with anything I had to do. The rest of my weekend was 100% uneventful. I had no symptoms at all. Nothing prevented me from going back to work on Sunday evening. Saturday was a day out with my family.
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