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Health & Science

Coronavirus Variant In England Causes International Concern

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

A new coronavirus variant is spreading rapidly in London and other parts of southeast England, and it is causing international concern. Scientists are trying to figure out how the virus mutated and how big a threat this poses. The British government is responding by locking down much of the country, and dozens of countries have banned U.K. travelers from entering. Let's talk about this with NPR global health correspondent Michaeleen Doucleff. Michaeleen, good morning.

MICHAELEEN DOUCLEFF, BYLINE: Good morning.

GREENE: Just want to be really careful here. I mean, a virus mutation sounds, on its face, very scary. But this is normal, right?

DOUCLEFF: Oh, yes, totally. This is totally expected. You know, throughout this pandemic, SARS-CoV-2 - that's the virus that causes COVID-19 - has been mutating the whole time, about one or two mutations each month. But this new variant in the U.K. doesn't just have one or even two mutations; it has 17. And many of those mutations are in what's called the spike protein. This is part of the virus that reaches out and binds to human cells, which then leads to infection.

And so here's why scientists are concerned. One of these mutations, they've already studied, and they know it makes a virus bind more tightly to human cells. So that, combined with the fact that so many mutations happen simultaneously, suggests this variant didn't arise by chance. But in fact, the mutations are changing the virus' behavior, helping it to adapt to humans.

GREENE: OK, changing behavior. What does that mean? Does it mean that this variant can spread more easily?

DOUCLEFF: Yes, possibly. No one knows for sure yet. I talked to Jeremy Luban. He's a biochemist at the University of Massachusetts Medical School. He says there are signs pointing in that direction that it may be more transmissible.

JEREMY LUBAN: There's no hard evidence, but it seems most likely if people sneeze on a bus, it's more likely to infect other people than the previous form of the virus.

DOUCLEFF: He says this new variant took over the outbreak in England very quickly. It first appeared back in late September. And by December, more than 60% of the cases in London were this new variant.

GREENE: I'm just thinking this through. If this new variant is more transmissible, I mean, more contagious, could this change the course of the pandemic here?

DOUCLEFF: Well, not necessarily, because this virus is already doing a pretty good job of spreading quickly. And a little bit of an increase might not make a big difference. In fact, several scientists I talked to said how quickly the virus spreads in a community will likely depend more on people's behavior, so how much they wear masks, social distance and avoid big gatherings, not whether or not this virus comes there or not.

GREENE: OK, another key question here - may be more transmissible. Does this variant also make people sicker?

DOUCLEFF: Yeah. So so far, there's good news here. Luban says people don't seem to be getting sicker.

LUBAN: There is absolutely no evidence that this virus is more deadly, OK? There's nothing at all to suggest that. And I don't think anyone that I know is worried about that possibility.

DOUCLEFF: Again, scientists don't know for sure because this variant just emerged, and they need to follow it closely.

GREENE: OK, that would be good news if it doesn't get people sicker. What about vaccines, Michaeleen? Will the vaccines that are being rolled out work?

DOUCLEFF: Yes, David, this is the million-dollar question. Every scientist I talked to, though, seemed very optimistic about this issue. And the reason is that when we get a vaccine, our immune system makes many antibodies against a whole chunk of the virus, not just a small part that could change when the virus mutates. Andrew Pekosz is a microbiologist at Johns Hopkins University. He says this new variant shouldn't deter anyone from getting the vaccine.

ANDREW PEKOSZ: If you're in line for the COVID-19 vaccine, stay in line. Don't give up your spot. Take it, you know? Everything is still looking good from the vaccine standpoint.

DOUCLEFF: And he says we should know for sure about that within about a month. He also says that the COVID vaccines that we have now use a new technology that's easier to tweak than older vaccine technologies. So, if needed, developers probably can change them relatively quickly.

GREENE: Are we going to see this variant in the U.S.?

DOUCLEFF: It's quite likely. In fact, it could already be here. The U.K. has been really vigilant about tracking the virus, detecting new variants and following them. So this variant could already be in many countries, including the U.S. It's just we haven't been looking for it.

GREENE: NPR's Michaeleen Doucleff. Michaeleen, thanks.

DOUCLEFF: Thank you, David. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.