Notes on the New UK COVID Variant

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December 21, 2020 9:54 a.m.

You’ve probably seen a flurry of news about this new variant of the COVID virus spreading in the United Kingdom. Focus on it has increased rapidly over the last 48 hours and Canada as well as a number of countries in Western Europe have instituted temporary bans on plane flights from United Kingdom. (As I write, the US has not followed suit.) Good information has been hard to come by both because it tends to be highly technical and also because the most knowledgable people have very limited information.

Fears about the new variant can be roughly classed into three categories. First, that it spreads more efficiently than earlier COVID variants; second, that it might be making people more sick; third, that it might be more resistant to the new vaccine.

Obviously the science and technical details are entirely beyond my knowledge. So I will try share what I’ve found and point you to trusted sources. As far as I can tell the only substantial concern based on what is currently known is the first I mentioned, that this variant may spread more efficiently than earlier strains. But even that is not clear. The best overview I’ve seen is this one by Kai Kupferschmidt in Science, published yesterday evening. It’s probably the best place to start. Deeper into the technical details here’s the report of an expert advisory group (NERVTAG) advising the UK government which found “moderate confidence that [the new variant] demonstrates a substantial increase in transmissibility compared to other variants.”

The big question I’ve had is: could the efficacy of the vaccine be in doubt? As best as I can tell, from the takes of the people who should best be able to answer that question, the answer is no or if there is an impact it should be marginal. Dr. Kizzmekia Corbett is the COVID vaccine lead at the Vaccine Research Center at NIH. She designed the modified spike protein that is the basis of the Moderna vaccine. She posted this thread on twitter earlier this morning.

Key portions: “Unlike monoclonal antibody therapies, vaccines (especially those using the whole spike protein) make polyclonal antibody responses. This means that the antibodies your vaccinated body will make will be able to bind the coronavirus spike in multiple places… not just one … In all, please don’t be alarmed any more than you have been through this pandemic. The precautionary measures (ie. no travel) in the UK are in line with sensible measures following a regional virus spike.”

Again, she has more detail in the thread which you can see here.

Looking forward there does seem to be evidence of evolutionary drift that may make it necessary to update the COVID vaccines in the future and perhaps require inoculations in the out years. Trevor Bedford, the genomic sequencing researcher at the Fred Hutch research institute in Washington State published a lengthy thread on this on Saturday. See here. It was Bedford who first pried open the genetic evidence of the cryptic spread of the virus in Washington state in the earliest days of the pandemic. I’ve learned to see him as one of the most knowledgable and reliable people in the field and, critically, able to explain developments in a way that is accessible to an educated lay reader.

I would summarize his view this way: there’s probably nothing we’re seeing that should meaningfully disrupt the roll out of the vaccine in 2021. However, there’s accumulating data that COVID is capable of evolving a bit more like influenza (more protean) than say measles (less protean). That means that in the years to come updated vaccines and some level of re-inoculation may be necessary.

The upshot from both Corbett and Bedford is that the current vaccines can grab on to COVID in a bunch of different places. So a single mutation or even a few mutations on the “spike” that the vaccines target aren’t going to make the vaccine suddenly not work. But over time this may require updates to the vaccine, to keep up its efficacy.

I’ve been watching the reporting on this evolve over the last three or four days. Last week this wasn’t being treated that seriously outside of the UK. I even saw some people suggesting the the UK government was focusing on it to sort of deflect responsibility for the rapid growth of cases. The weight of opinion has now shifted on that front. There is significant evidence that this variant is more transmissible. But that evidence isn’t conclusive. The people who know what they’re talking about are pretty clear that we just don’t have enough evidence to know either way. What does seem a little more clear to me than it did yesterday is that we should be pretty confident that this is not going to be a game changing development either in terms of infection acquired immunity or the vaccines that are now rolling out around the United States and the world.

Final note: I’ve tried to characterize as best I can the opinions of highly knowledgable people. I’d strongly recommend reading what they said directly in the links I shared in the body of this post.

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