On December 19, 2020, U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced stricter lockdown measures in London in response to a sharp rise in COVID-19 cases. The surge was blamed on a variant of the coronavirus that is reportedly up to 70 percent more transmissible, according to British officials.
If that paragraph makes your pulse race, you’re not alone. When I heard that news and that number—70 percent—my first instinct was to panic, and then cycle through various stages of denial, bargaining, and anger. It couldn’t be true. Vaccines were rolling out; we could see the light at the end of a tunnel. A new, more transmissible mutation was just a cruel joke—we’ve all had about enough bad news for one year.
My second instinct was more rational—I learned years ago that when it comes to the medical world, panic is rarely a useful response whereas immersing yourself in facts and listening to experts is almost always the right move. And what the experts are saying is: don’t panic.
Coronaviruses Mutate—That’s Expected
When we hear the word “mutation,” particularly when it relates to a virus that has upended all our lives for nearly a year, we imagine the worst. But a virus mutating—even this virus—is completely normal.
“Viruses mutate naturally as part of their life cycle,” says Ewan Harrison, scientific project manager for the COVID-19 Genomics UK Consortium, in an article for NPR. Researchers expected COVID-19 to change, and it is. In fact, the most common worldwide form of the virus is not the initial one that first appeared in Wuhan, China.
Though it might not seem like it, that fact—that COVID is acting as expected—is comforting. (Well, maybe not comforting exactly, but certainly a word that’s somewhere below terrifying.) There’s so much about COVID-19 that we still don’t know that it often feels like it’s straight out of a science fiction novel. But at its core, it is a coronavirus, something the human race has seen and faced before. And as such, it behaves like other coronaviruses in many expected ways—including mutations.
There’s No Evidence That This Mutation Is More Deadly
So far, there’s no strong evidence suggesting this mutation makes the virus more deadly. The main concern with this new mutation is that it is more transmissible—70 percent more transmissible, to be exact. That’s dangerous because more people infected means more people who need hospital care, which would mean more strain on already straining health care systems. There’s also concern among some scientists that the increase in transmission rate is partially due to the fact that this strain makes children as susceptible to the virus as adults.
However, other experts are less prepared to say this virus is more contagious.
“The amount of evidence in the public domain is woefully inadequate to draw strong or firm opinions on whether the virus has truly increased transmission,” said Professor Jonathan Ball, a virologist at the University of Nottingham, in an interview with the BBC. The spike in numbers could possibly be attributed to human behavior, suggests Muge Cevik, an infectious disease expert at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland.
Either way, acting quickly to curb the spread–like the U.K. has done–is a rational response.
The Mutation Is Not In The United States–As Far As We Know
The mutation has been found in the U.K., specifically in London, the South East and eastern England. There’s some evidence that the mutation is also in Denmark, Australia, and The Netherlands.
This Mutation Will Likely Not Impact The Effectiveness Of Vaccines
The real reason to panic would be if this mutation means the newly FDA-approved vaccines by Pfizer and Moderna are no longer effective. That would mean we’re no closer to being back to “normal” than we were in March. While there is some concern that the mutation impacts the spike protein, which the vaccines rely on to an extent, experts say it would take years for the virus to mutate to the point where the current vaccines are useless.
Even more encouraging is that our immune systems create unique and complex responses in reaction to the virus, which means it’s not easy to evade the body’s protections. “No matter how the virus twists and weaves, it’s not that easy to find a genetic solution that can really combat all these different antibody specificities, not to mention the other arms of the immune response,” says Kartik Chandran, a virologist at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York.
In an interview with the New York Times, Dr. Jesse Bloom, an evolutionary biologist at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle, affirms, “No one should worry that there is going to be a single catastrophic mutation that suddenly renders all immunity and antibodies useless.”
Mutations Highlight Even More The Need To Contain The Pandemic While Vaccines Are Rolling Out
While there is no present concern that the mutation will make the vaccines useless, additional mutations might impact that. “This virus is potentially on a pathway for vaccine escape, it has taken the first couple of steps towards that,” suggests Professor Ravi Gupta at the University of Cambridge in an interview with the BBC.
But that’s not grounds for panic for two reasons. One, because the vaccines in use are “easy to tweak.” And also because we can control how much the virus mutates by limiting how much we let it spread.
“[I]it is important to work toward viral containment and ending the pandemic, because the longer the virus continues to circulate, the greater the chances of a new mutation emerging,” writes Dr. Jeremy Rossman, Honorary Senior Lecturer in Virology at the University of Kent in an article for Science Focus.
We’re closing in on the last few months of the pandemic (I hope!), but experts believe these months will likely be the most difficult we’ve seen yet. This mutation is a reminder that now is the time to be vigilant, to stay home when we can, and wear a mask when we’re out or around anyone not in our family. We can impact for the better what happens next. But this mutation is also a reminder not to panic. Because panic has never helped anyone with anything.
Information about COVID-19 is rapidly changing, and Scary Mommy is committed to providing the most recent data in our coverage. With news being updated so frequently, some of the information in this story may have changed after publication. For this reason, we are encouraging readers to use online resources from local public health departments, the Centers for Disease Control, and the World Health Organization to remain as informed as possible.