Paris | The emergence in the United Kingdom of a new variant of the coronavirus, presented as more contagious than the others, is sowing concern throughout Europe. But there is no evidence at this stage that this variant causes more severe forms or will resist vaccines, experts say.
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The virus mutates, is this normal?
Viruses, like living things, are endowed with genetic material (DNA or RNA), which can be subject to modifications when they replicate (mutations) in the cells where they propagate or by exchanges between viruses (recombinations ). Most often without consequence, these mutations can also give the virus an advantage or a disadvantage for its survival.
“There are undoubtedly thousands of variants,” recalls Emma Hodcroft, epidemiologist at the University of Bern.
“The most important thing is to find out whether this variant has properties that have an impact on human health, diagnostics and vaccines,” adds the professor of infectious diseases at the University of Liverpool Julian Hiscox, quoted by the Science Media Center.
The new variant on which the British government has sounded the alarm includes in particular a mutation, called N501Y, in the spike protein of the coronavirus, the point which is on its surface and allows it to attach to human cells to penetrate them, thus playing a key role in viral infection.
Is this variant more contagious?
The new variant of the virus is “out of control” in the United Kingdom, alarmed the British Minister for Health, Matt Hancock Sunday. Boris Johnson’s head of government spoke of a 70% higher contagiousness, an announcement that has led many countries in Europe and around the world to suspend arrivals by air routes from Britain.
In fact, “the UK has faced in recent weeks a rapid increase in the number of COVID-19 cases in the south-east of England” and analyzes have shown that “a large proportion of cases belong to To the new mutation in the virus, the European Disease Control Agency (ECDC) wrote on Sunday.
Several health experts also note that the increase in the number of hospitalizations in this English region coincides with the appearance of this new form of the virus. “The reasons for this increased infectivity are not yet clear. We still have to know if it is due to greater viral replication or better binding with the cells that line the nose and lungs, ”explained in the Science Media Center Peter Openshaw, professor of experimental medicine at Imperial College from London.
However, Emma Hodcroft is cautious on a “higher contagiousness of 70%”, because the estimates early in time can be modified and “that we do not know much about how this figure came out”.
“You should know that this region of south-east England had been fairly spared, group immunity in the population is therefore low and the virus has found a ground to develop”, also explains to AFP the Deputy Director of the National Reference Center for Respiratory Viruses at the Institut Pasteur in Paris, Vincent Enouf.
How did this variant circulate?
It is difficult to say that this new form originated in the United Kingdom. This country “is the world leader in sequencing (…) So if there is a variant and it arrives in the United Kingdom, it has a good chance of being detected there”, notes Emma Hodcroft, for which the first sequence of this new variant dates back to September.
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), similar forms have been detected in very low numbers in Australia (one case), Denmark (9), the Netherlands (1) or South Africa. Italy also announced a first case detected on Sunday.
“Even though he wasn’t born in the UK, it looks like he grew up there. It was in England that it developed, ”says Emma Hodcroft. For his part, the French Minister of Health Olivier Véran has not ruled out that he is already circulating in France, even if he has not yet been detected.
Less effective vaccines, a more lethal variant?
A better resistance of this variant of COVID-19 to the vaccines which have started to be distributed in the United States, the United Kingdom, and which are expected around the world, would represent a disaster scenario. But this is not the most likely hypothesis in the eyes of scientists.
“The idea of the vaccine is that the Spike protein as a whole is shown to your immune system, so you learn to recognize many different parts of it,” says Emma Hodcroft. Suddenly, “even if some parts change, you still have all the other parts to recognize” the virus, she says.
Vincent Enouf evokes, him, a “repertoire of antibodies which should be sufficient”.
“From all that we know at the present time and following discussions that have taken place between experts from the European authorities”, the new strain “has no impact on vaccines Which remain “just as effective”, said German Health Minister Jens Spahn.
“There is no indication at this time that this new strain is causing a higher death rate or that it affects vaccines and treatments, but urgent work is underway to confirm this,” added the chief medical officer of the ‘England Chris Whitty. The WHO and the European Center for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) have reached the same findings, but also add that additional investigations are necessary.
An effect on the tests?
“Laboratory managers should check with their suppliers if their tests could be faulted” by this new variant, notes Vincent Enouf.
According to the ECDC, the change in the Spike protein has caused false negatives in some UK test labs that only rely on this protein in their analyzes. The European agency recommends avoiding relying on this single method, which is not the most common according to it anyway.