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And now for the Back Story on …
The new variant
The world has been watching with curiosity and alarm as scientists in Britain have described a newly identified variant of the coronavirus. It appears to be more contagious than more established variants. Here’s what scientists have learned about it so far.
Is the British variant some kind of new supervirus?
No. It’s just one variation among many that have arisen as the coronavirus has spread around the world. Mutations arise as a virus replicates, and this variant — known as B.1.1.7 — has acquired its own distinctive set of them.
Is it more contagious than other viruses?
It appears so. In preliminary work, researchers in Britain have found that the virus is spreading quickly in parts of southern England, displacing a crowded field of other variants that have been circulating for months.
However, a virus lineage becoming more common is not proof that it spreads faster than others. It could grow more widespread simply through luck. For instance, a variant might start out in the middle of a crowded city, where transmission is easy, allowing it to make more copies of itself. Still, the epidemiological evidence gathered so far from England does seem to suggest that this variant is very good at spreading.
Does it cause more severe disease?
There is no strong evidence that it does, at least not yet. But there is reason to take the possibility seriously. In South Africa, another lineage of the coronavirus has gained one particular mutation that is also found in B.1.1.7. This variant is spreading quickly through coastal areas of South Africa. And in preliminary studies, doctors there have found that people infected with this variant carry a heightened viral load. In many viral diseases, this is associated with more severe symptoms.
Will the variant render the new vaccines ineffective?
No. Most experts doubt that it will have any great impact on vaccines, although it’s not yet possible to rule out any effect.
That’s it for this briefing. See you next time.
Carole Landry helped write this briefing. Theodore Kim and Jahaan Singh provided the break from the news. You can reach the team at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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