A study published in the Public Health of England by Chand et al identified a new strain of SARS COV 2, currently known as “Variant of Concern 202012/01”, its also being called “UK COVID-19 variant”.
It was first detected in October 2020 in the United Kingdom from a sample taken from the previous month.
The new strain was correlated with the significant increase in COVID-19 infection rate, thought to be partly caused by the change of the new variant’s spike protein.
The new variant was detected in the UK but it is not definitively known that it originated from UK, as it may just merely reflect that UK does more sequencing than other countries.
Experts have suggested that the variant may have spawned from a chronically infected immunocompromised person, giving the virus a long time to replicate and evolve.
The UK scientific advisory body NERVTAG concluded on 18 December 2020 that they had moderate confidence that the UK COVID 19 variant was more transmissible but they have insufficient data to conclude on the exact mechanisms.
Dr. Melvin Sanicas, vaccinologist stated that “We should be more cautious because even if this variant is not more deadly, it is more transmissible, which means potentially more cases, and potentially more hospitalizations and potentially more deaths.”
News have also been circulating that new strains may affect COVID-19 detection in testing.
“PCR testing has a safety net,” said Dr. Melvin Sanicas. “The typical PCR kits look at 3 sites so the virus will still be identified. Even if the assay fails to detect the mutated S or spike part of the virus, there are 2 other sites that are not mutated and can be detected.” He added.
It is known that Test kits measure not 1 or 2 but 3 or more parts of the virus which determines its detection. As the UK variant’s mutation is but 1 part of the virus, essentially testing results would more likely go as usual. As for vaccinations and the potentiality for Antibody dependent enhancements, Dr Sanicas has this to say, “ADE has been observed in SARS, MERS and other human respiratory virus infections including RSV and measles, which suggests a risk of ADE for SARS-CoV-2 vaccines and antibody-based interventions. However, clinical data has not shown ADE in human COVID-19. This is being monitored in the COVID vaccination programs”
It is vital that people should be educated that the potential threat of ADE is far less concerning than the real risk of death of getting infected by COVID-19. These concepts must be communicated clearly by healthcare and the media.
The Philippine government currently bans flights from multiple countries where the UK strain was said to be found. In a recent conference the president also said that new lockdowns may be implemented by next year (2021) due to the new strain.
When asked about the efficacy of such policies, Dr. Sanicas stated that “The travel ban is of course justified by trying to prevent the spread of the new variant to other countries, and indeed it will be an effective control measure. There is capacity for genomic surveillance in the country but if there is the possibility to increase surveillance, it would be ideal. But then should the money be used for this alone? Or would it be better to use the money for vaccine programs? The policies need to be realistic. Is it something the government can afford with all the competing priorities? This I do not know. The government can answer this.”
The Philippines is currently estimated 20,000 cases short of reaching half a million cases of COVID-19 and has recorded more than 9000 deaths. Upon the coming of 2021, hopefully Filipinos will not assume that the war against the pandemic is over, as one mishap could still lead to an outbreak and preventable deaths – even in the presence of better measures, treatments and vaccines.