Coronavirus

What Do We Know About The New Strains Of Covid?

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Brisbane went into a three-day lockdown after just one hotel quarantine worker was found to be infected with the UK Covid strain.

It was a big response for a single infection. So what is it exactly about this UK strain that has governments so worried?

And if Covid is capable of mutating into something scarier, what does that mean for our future with the virus? 

What Do We Know About The New UK Covid Strain?

Here are a few of the basic facts: the new strain of Covid is otherwise known as B117 and it was first detected in September.

There are only some minute differences between it and the original SARS-CoV-2 that we’ve all come to know and hate.

In fact, it’s technically called a variant because it’s genetically really not far enough away from the first virus to be called a strain but for the sake of simplicity, let’s stick with that word.

We know that it doesn’t create a more severe disease in people, which is good news, but it is a lot more infectious, which is not so good news.

Lab tests of the way it spreads in cells have shown that it could be around 70% more infectious than the virus we’ve been dealing with up until now.

In some places in London, it’s already totally overtaken the number of infections from the old strain and pushed the country into lockdown because of skyrocketing case numbers.

So, what actually led to this new strain?

Professor Nigel McMillan: “Coronavirus or the SARS-CoV-2, which causes COVID-19 is really infectious anyway, coronaviruses are highly infectious, it’s just even more so. This is just coronavirus, in fact, all viruses doing what they do.”

That’s Professor Nigel McMillan, he explained to me that viruses are always mutating – it’s kind of like a fast-forward evolution because they replicate so quickly.

Any successful mutations a virus develops get rapidly passed on, which can sound kind of scary and apocalyptic but it’s unlikely that a particularly vicious or extremely deadly strain of Covid will come out of those changes.

And that’s because a virus that kills its host isn’t actually all that successful.

NM: “Ironically for the Ebola virus for example, when you first see outbreaks the death rates are in the high 90s but that’s not very effective at passing it on and Ebola outbreaks actually go backwards to about 70% fatality rate, which is still horrible but that’s the most effective, that’s the sweet spot for the virus to pass it on to the next person.”

B117 isn’t the only new strain of Covid that’s cropped up, there have been a few circulating in the UK and another highly-infectious one has come out of South Africa.

What Should Australia Do About It?

So, do these new strains mean that Australia needs to change its public health response at all?

Professor McMillan told me that hotel quarantine was always going to be a bit of a weak spot for our public health response, but he supports the rapid lockdown that happened in Queensland when it appeared.

NM: “If we were to have a community outbreak we would rather it not be this virus and the reason really is, if you look at what’s going on in the UK right now the curve of infections has really meandered along and is now almost vertical.”

It’s a pretty grim reminder that until mass global vaccination happens, Australia will always be vulnerable to new Covid strains like this making their way through our borders.

The Takeaway

The new UK Covid strain is really worrying because we know that it can cause case numbers of the virus to shoot through the roof.

While we don’t necessarily have to worry about new strains becoming a lot more severe when they’re contracted, we should be concerned about the burden that these new strains could put on our public health systems if we were to see an outbreak of them here.