A new strain of the novel coronavirus disease, first identified in the United Kingdom late September, is spreading rapidly around the world with cases now documented in Denmark, Iceland, the Netherlands, Australia, and Italy.
The latest country to fall victim to this variant is Singapore, as the government disclosed earlier today that a positive case of the new virus has been imported from Europe. The Asian city-state placed 11 in quarantine and tests returned positive for the new strain, a report by Reuters says.
Singapore’s Health Ministry also revealed that it has been conducting genomic sequencing tests for all arrivals from Europe and has so far prevented the mutation from spreading across its territory.
The new coronavirus variant is 56% more transmissible than other strains, according to a study by the Centre for Mathematical Modelling of Infectious Diseases at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.
The British government had previously said the mutated variant appeared to be as much as 70% more transmissible than other circulating strains. Although there’s no clear evidence that it results in more or less severe disease or deaths.
With the fast spread of the strain, at least 40 countries have banned or limited travel to and fro the UK while more details are sought about the more infectious virus. On this list are countries from up to five continents, showing how far the new strain could go without strict movement restrictions in place.
There are particular concerns that tests, treatments, and vaccines, which governments just started rolling out, might be less effective against the new variant. Most countries have also gone back into intense lockdowns as a result.
Experts have moved to allay fears, however, saying they do not expect the mutations from the new strain, known as B.1.1.7, to interfere with the effectiveness of existing vaccines.
Ugur Sahin, the chief executive of BioNTech, a German firm that jointly developed the first reported effective Covid-19 vaccine with U.S. pharma giant Pfizer, on Wednesday also said if the company’s existing vaccine was not effective against the new virus strain, it could use existing technology to produce a new vaccine against the mutations within weeks.
“The beauty of the messenger mRNA technology is we can directly start to engineer a vaccine that completely mimics this new mutation and we could manufacture a new vaccine within six weeks,” he said.
The BioNTech-Pfizer coronavirus vaccine was approved by the European Medicines Agency on Monday, after already receiving authorisations in the UK, the U.S., and several other countries. Doses of the shot will be distributed to all European Union member states on December 26, for vaccinations to begin across Europe two days later.
But the continent could see a setback if existing drugs do not work against the new coronavirus variant as governments would have to wait for new vaccines to be tested, manufactured, and approved before commencing another rollout. The speed of the process would largely depend on how long regulators take to authorise the new formulation.
In addition to the variant found in Britain, new strains of the coronavirus have also been discovered in Africa. South Africa’s health authorities said last week that the new genetic mutation of the virus might be responsible for a recent surge in infections there.
Also in Nigeria, another new variant of the new coronavirus seems to have emerged, the head of the Africa Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (Africa CDC) said Thursday but cautioned more investigation was needed.
Ameenah Hassan is an intern at Arbiterz.