New COVID strain B117 – UK / Global

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The newly-identified SARS-CoV-2 variant VUI-202012/01 lineage B117, first recognized in England in late September, has now spread to at least 45 countries. It poses a very high threat for healthcare system collapse globally.

The variant has 23 mutations compared with the original virus discovered in Wuhan, 17 of which have appeared since the virus diverged from its most recent ancestor. One is mutation N501Y, located in the spike protein, allowing the virus to bind more readily to the human ACE2- receptor. The other mutations may assist in evading the immune system better. There is also evidence the B117 variant generates a higher viral load. The B1351 lineage, a variant detected in South Africa, also carries the N501Y mutation.

Initially, it was unclear whether the high number of cases of the variant in the UK were because it was more transmissible or because it emerged in an area where there was already a high spread of COVID-19. B117 now accounts for 60% of positive COVID-19 tests in the UK and it has become evident that it is substantially more contagious with a reproduction number of 0.92 for other strains vs 1.45 for B117. Generally it is assumed that the reproduction number should increase with 0.4 to 0.7. Our models (below) for the new variant show significant increases in the number of deaths with very high risk of exceeding ICU capacities and overall healthcare system collapse.

Photo: 3D rendering of SARS-CoV-2.

The B117 variant is not thought to be more deadly or cause more severe illness at this moment, but over time it will inevitably drive up rates of infection, hospitalizations and death. Preliminary evidence also suggests the variant is unlikely to evade immune responses generated by vaccines or previous COVID-19 infection.

Given the high increase of transmissibility, countries urgently need to reconsider their border and quarantine procedures and not just for travelers from the UK as B117 has spread sufficiently to pose a current global threat.

 

SEIR Monte Carlo simulations of regular COVID-19 strains with social distancing (top) vs B117 (bottom) on a 100k population with 10 initially infected:

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