Australian authorities say we need to assume the UK COVID-19 variant will become the dominant strain. This is where the virus has spread so far
It’s been about five weeks since the UK Health Minister announced a new strain of the coronavirus.
Since then, the UK COVID-19 variant has spread to at least 45 countries and prompted lockdowns and new restrictions across Australia.
Like national lockdowns in March last year, these are designed to provide some breathing room for authorities scrambling to contain the spread.
This is how far the variant has spread, and how Australian authorities are tackling the issue.
Where has the UK coronavirus variant spread so far?
So far, 45 countries have detected the UK coronavirus variant, according to cov-lineages.org, which, among other things, tracks the global spread of the new COVID-19 strains.
Thirteen countries have recorded community transmission of the COVID-19 variant, which studies suggest could be up to 70 per cent more transmissible than earlier strains.
Cases have been recorded in European countries including Denmark, France, Germany, Ireland, Italy, Switzerland, Portugal and the Netherlands.
Outside of Europe, local transmission has been recorded in the United States, Canada, Israel and in the Philippines.
The first case detected in the United States was on December 29, in a man who had no travel history.
According to the US Centres for Disease Control, there are 63 recorded cases across the country.
The states with the most cases of the variant include California with 33 recorded cases, Florida with 22, and Colorado, where the strain was first detected, has three recorded cases.
This is not the total cases of the variant circulating in the US, just those found in the analysis of positive samples. It comes as the US recently reached a record 300,000 new COVID-19 cases recorded in a day.
‘We have to assume that this strain will become the dominant strain’
The new strain’s increased infectiousness is thought to be driving up case numbers up in the United Kingdom.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison said, “this strain is likely to become [the] more dominant strain of the virus globally”.
NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian has said the same, although she thought the strain shouldn’t be thought of as a “UK strain”.
“We have to assume that this strain will become the dominant strain and it is important to keep re-assessing our settings, keep staying vigilant and for the immediate future keep wearing our masks in those indoor settings,” she said.
“I also want to stress we shouldn’t be attributing these variants to one country because the so-called UK strain now exists in 30 countries.”
Are tighter lockdowns the new normal now the new strain is spreading?
We don’t know yet. But, among other restrictions, Greater Brisbane is in lockdown because, for the first time, a person has been in the Australian community while unknowingly sick with the strain.
Queensland Chief Health Officer Jeannette Young said she wasn’t surprised the UK strain was the first to break out of hotel quarantine in Queensland.
“We’ve got to remember, this is a very contagious virus, even before the new variant, and this variant is 70 per cent more contagious,” Dr Young said.
“So I wasn’t that surprised that our first breach was because of this virus. Other states have had multiple situations where they have had the virus escape from their quarantine hotel, and in most cases they haven’t been able to
find out how they occurred.”
Ms Berejiklian suggested the spread of the variant has led to a reassessment of how the virus is managed.
“It is important to keep re-assessing our settings, keep staying vigilant and, for the immediate future, keep wearing our masks in those indoor settings [in NSW],” she said.
“Anything we can do to reduce that risk is really important, especially now when we understand what these strains are doing, and all the experts advise in due course that these mutated strain will become the dominant strain.”
She said, like national lockdowns in March, measures like the reduction of international passenger arrivals will give authorities time to manage the new strain.
“[It] gives us more time to learn what the virus is doing, what new variations of the virus is doing, and that’s important,” she said.
She said she wanted to see more Australians fly back home but the COVID-19 variants are concerning.
“I think that’s always our aspiration, but we can’t pretend about how serious the current mutations of the virus are … health experts say it’s up to 50 to 70 per cent more transmissible than other strains, and if that’s the case, we do have to consider what we do in the future.”
How does this affect the vaccine rollout?
Scientists expect the virus to mutate because the coronavirus, like all viruses, constantly evolves.
And that has been factored into vaccine development. New research suggests Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine can protect against the UK and South African variants.
The study was preliminary and did not look at the two other major vaccines being used in Western countries so far — Moderna and AstraZeneca.
But Frederic Bushman, of the University of Pennsylvania, who tracks how the virus mutates said: “There’s no reason to think the vaccines won’t work just as well on these strains.”
Professor Bushman, who wasn’t involved with the Pfizer study, cautioned that it tested just one vaccine against one mutation.
The Moderna and AstraZeneca vaccines are undergoing similar testing, and he said he expects similar findings.
The study marks just the beginning of continual monitoring to make sure that all the vaccines being rolled out around the world continue to work.
What about the South African strain?
The South African strain has spread to at least 13 countries, including Zambia and Botswana, according to cov-lineages.org, and both African nations have recorded community transmission.
It was first recorded in Australia on December 22. Japan, China and European countries including France, Austria and Norway have recorded the strain.