Britain Sounds Alarm About Mutant Coronavirus Strain

British scientists were scrambling Saturday to work out whether a mutant strain of the coronavirus, which has been spreading rapidly in England this month, may be resistant to the crop of newly developed vaccines.The strain was first identified on December 13 in the county of Kent in southern England, and initial analysis by government scientists suggested it is “growing faster than the existing variants.”Britain’s Prime Minister Boris Johnson speaks during a news conference in response to the ongoing situation with the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic, inside 10 Downing Street, London ,Britain, Dec. 19, 2020.British Prime Minister Boris Johnson held an unscheduled meeting of ministers Friday amid mounting alarm about the threat posed by the mutant strain, which has been named VUI-202012/01. Johnson said at a press conference Saturday that there was no evidence so far to suggest vaccines would be any less effective against the new strain, but he added that “there is still much we don’t know.”He noted the new strain was up to 70% more transmissible than prior strains.The British leader announced a virtual lockdown for London and the southeast of England, with people urged to stay at home. All nonessential stores are now to close, and people should not enter or leave the British capital or large parts of southeast of England.“We can’t continue with Christmas as planned,” said Johnson, noting that a previously announced relaxation of rules for the holidays would be reversed. In London and southern England, households now can’t mix to celebrate Christmas. Elsewhere in the country, up to three households can mix but only for Christmas Day itself.“I must stress how complicated it is to work out, in a situation where things might be growing for other reasons, to really put your finger on that it’s actually the virus that is doing it, but the evidence is pointing in that direction,” Ewan Birney, deputy director of the European Molecular Biological Laboratory, told the BBC.More Than 75 Million Global Coronavirus CasesUS has more COVID cases than any other countryMidweek, Health Minister Matt Hancock said the new strain might be associated with the faster transmission of the virus in the southeast of England and London, but there was “nothing to suggest” it caused a worse disease, or that it might be resistant to vaccines that have only just received approval in Britain and the U.S.England’s chief medical officer, Chris Whitty, said Britain had alerted the World Health Organization about the fast transmissibility of the variant strain.“There is no current evidence to suggest the new strain causes a higher mortality rate or that it affects vaccines and treatments, although urgent work is under way to confirm this,” he said in a statement.Jeremy Farrar, a government adviser and director of the Wellcome Trust, Britain’s largest medical research endowment, warned Saturday of his concern. He tweeted: “The new strain of COVID-19 is worrying & real cause for concern & extra caution. Research is ongoing to understand more but acting urgently now is critical. There is no part of the UK & globally that should not be concerned. As in many countries, the situation is fragile.”The new strain of Covid-19 is worrying & real cause for concern & extra caution. Research is ongoing to understand more, but acting urgently now is critical. There is no part of the UK & globally that should not be concerned. As in many countries, the situation is fragile.
— Jeremy Farrar (@JeremyFarrar) Britain’s PM Boris Johnson attends a news conference, together with Chris Whitty, the Chief Medical Officer and Patrick Vallance, UK Gov. Chief Scientific Adviser, in response to the ongoing situation with the coronavirus, London , Dec. 19, 2020.Hospitals in England are seeing a record number of patients suffering from COVID-19, the disease triggered by the coronavirus. About 38 million people in England already were under tough coronavirus restrictions before Saturday’s announcement. The new measures amount to a virtual lockdown, something Johnson had said just a few days ago he would do everything to avoid.Johnson’s decision to cancel Christmas for much of England prompted the fury of some lawmakers from his ruling Conservative Party. Many have fulminated for weeks against what they see as heavy-handed government and a lack of parliamentary oversight.“The changes must be put to a vote on the Commons at the earliest opportunity,” said Mark Harper, chairman of the COVID Recovery Group of Tory MPs who have criticized government handling of the pandemic.Keir Starmer, leader of the main opposition party, Labour, accused Johnson of indecisiveness. He had been calling for tougher restrictions for weeks and had warned against relaxing Christmas rules.“Millions of families across the country are going to be heartbroken by this news — having their Christmas plans ripped up. And I’m really frustrated because I raised this with the prime minister on Wednesday and he dismissed that and went on to tell people to have a merry little Christmas, only three days later to rip up their plans,” Starmer told British broadcasters.British health authorities announced a further 27,052 confirmed cases of infection across Britain on Saturday and 534 more fatalities.In all, 66,541 Britons have died from COVID-19, just 4,500 short of the total British civilian death toll in the Second World War.