News National UK faces ‘race against time’ as new mutant strains dominate globally
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UK faces ‘race against time’ as new mutant strains dominate globally

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Some British hospitals are facing an oxygen shortage amid high demand for ICU beds, Prime Minister Boris Johnson has revealed.

On Tuesday morning (Australian time), he announced the country had reached a “very perilous moment” in the coronavirus pandemic.

Mr Johnson said Britain was in “a race against time” to get citizens vaccinated as deaths hit record highs and hospitals ran out of oxygen.

Speaking in Bristol, he said, “we can all see the threat that our NHS [national health service] faces, the pressure it’s under, the demand in intensive care units, the pressure on ventilated beds, even the shortage of oxygen in some places”.

So far, about 40 per cent of people in their 80s and 23 per cent of elderly residents in aged care homes have been vaccinated, he said.

“The worst thing now for us is to allow success in rolling out a vaccine program to breed any kind of complacency about the state of the pandemic.”

Mr Johnson’s comments came as the rapid spread of mutant strains of the virus prompted new lockdowns overseas and sparked concerns about the efficacy of vaccines.

So, how worried should we be?

First, it’s normal for viruses to mutate, said Associate Professor Paul Griffin, an infectious diseases expert at The University of Queensland.

“Basically, all living reproducing cells have an error rate, or mutation rate,” he told The New Daily. 

“SARS CoV-2 has a relatively low mutation rate, about one or two per month. So with COVID-19, it’s mutating slower than a lot of other viruses.”

The mutant strain that has Australian authorities most concerned is the B117 strain from Britain.

Here’s what we know about it:

  • The variant could be up to 70 per cent more infectious than other strains;
  • It was first detected in Britain in September, but could have been imported from another country;
  • The variant is rapidly taking over as the dominant strain of the virus in Britain;
  • It has an unusually high number of genetic changes
  • One of the strain’s mutations, called N501Y, alters the most dangerous part of the virus’s spike protein, known as the “receptor-binding domain”, which latches onto human cells;

  • Its spread is heavily concentrated in London, the south-east and east of England, resulting in a tough lockdown in those areas;
  • There is no evidence to suggest the new strain is more deadly than other strains, but this will need to be monitored.

Britain has been ravaged by the coronavirus in recent months. It had more than 60,000 new cases and 1035 deaths on January 8 alone, according to data compiled by Johns Hopkins University.

Already, more than 81,000 people have died from COVID-19 in Britain, and more than three million people have contracted it.

Brits exercising at The Long Walk at Windsor Castle during the latest lockdown. Photo: Getty

Although Britain’s grim figures cannot solely be blamed on the variant, Australian health authorities fear it could trigger a major outbreak if the highly contagious strain starts spreading here.

Already, 45 countries have detected the variant, according to cov-lineages.org, which tracks the global spread of the new COVID-19 strains.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison said: “This strain is likely to become [the] more dominant strain of the virus globally”.

Queensland narrowly avoided an outbreak of the variant after a returned traveller who flew into the state from Melbourne last week tested positive to the strain.

The state announced zero new locally acquired cases after an emergency three-day lockdown ended on Monday. However, it emerged on Monday night that the partner of a hotel cleaner had tested positive.

Chief health officer Jeannette Young said it was ‘‘likely to be the UK variant’’.

“We’ve done a fantastic job in many ways. We’re very lucky,” Associate Professor Griffin said.

What rules are changing to combat these new strains?

International passenger caps have been reduced, masks are mandatory in airports and on planes, coronavirus tests will be compulsory before and after international flights, and there will be daily tests for hotel quarantine workers.

The guidelines from the Communicable Disease Network Australia have also been updated to advise anyone who tests positive for the mutant British strain to quarantine for the full 14 days from the onset of symptoms.

The advice includes testing people with throat and nasal swabs at the end of their isolation period to show they are no longer infectious.

On Friday, national cabinet agreed to a range of changes aimed at protecting Australia against new strains, which have popped up in South Africa, Japan and Brazil, as well as elsewhere.

The South African variant, called B1351, is particularly concerning.

It carries several mutations, including the N501Y mutation that alters the virus’s spike protein, which scientists fear could potentially outsmart current vaccines.

The good news, however, is there’s no evidence to suggest that the South African strain causes more serious illness.

Brisbane went into a three-down lockdown amid fears related to the British strain. Photo: AAP

Meanwhile, in Japan, health officials have claimed a new variant detected there is similar to the highly contagious strains in Britain and South Africa.

They said it may have been brought into the country from Brazil, where a mutant strain was discovered nine months ago, after it was detected in passengers who flew into Japan from Brazil in early January.

Will current virus vaccines work against the new strains?

Most likely, said Associate Professor Griffin.

Some “escape mutants” might evade vaccines currently available, he said, but that’s also why scientists were continuing to develop a range of vaccines “so we have plenty of options up our sleeve”.

In a recent study, yet to be peer-reviewed, researchers at the University of Texas ran an experiment to see if the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine worked against viruses with the N501Y mutation, as seen in the British and South African strains.

They found that despite the mutation, vaccine-generated antibodies were still able to block the virus and stop it from infecting human cells.

The Moderna and AstraZeneca vaccines are undergoing similar testing.

The Australian government will start vaccinating people from mid to late February, pending approval from the Therapeutic Goods Administration.

It is aiming to have at least half the population immunised by the middle of the year.

To encourage widespread uptake of the vaccine, the government is also rolling out a $24 million advertising campaign, to start within weeks.

Federal Health Minister Greg Hunt said the campaign would use social and traditional media to allay concerns about the vaccine and build Australians’ confidence.

“The Department of Health invests in understanding community concerns, and is developing information and communication to meet the needs of the community, including pregnant women and young families,” Mr Hunt said.

“This will be based on the expert medical advice.”