The new variant of the SARS-CoV-2 virus in southern England has preceded Brexit with only days before Britain is set to leave the EU. At least 40 countries have since banned air traffic to and from Britain.
But it remains unclear how the more virulent strain of the virus will change the course of the pandemic since the new strain, B.1.1.7 shows 17 mutations all at once, something never seen before.
Andrew Rambaut, a molecular evolutionary biologist at the University of Edinburgh, said that among the 17 mutations are eight in the gene that encodes the spike protein on the viral surface, two of which are particularly worrisome. These mutations may have increased the virus’ transmissibility by 70 percent.
In a press conference on Saturday, Patrick Vallance, a British physician, scientist, and clinical pharmacologist who serves as the UK’s Chief Science Adviser, said B.1.1.7 first appeared in a virus isolated on 20 September, and already accounted for about 26 percent of cases in mid-November. “So, in London, over 60 percent of all the cases were the new variant.”
But Christian Drosten, German virologist did not share their concern. “There are too many unknowns to say something like that,” he responded. Drosten pointed out that the new mutant also carried a deletion in another viral gene, ORF8, that previous studies suggest could reduce the virus’ ability to spread.
Britain depends on imported EU food and fears about supply shortages have been expressed. One newspaper headlined the looming shortages of fresh produce, including lettuce.
“If nothing changes, we will will start to see gaps over the coming days on lettuce, salad leaves, cauliflowers, broccoli, citrus fruit — all of which are imported from EU at this time of year,” British supermarket chain Sainsbury’s said in a statement. “We hope UK and French [governments] can come to a solution that prioritizes immediate passage of produce and food,” CNN reported.
The closing down of transport routes makes little sense as the horse has already bolted from the proverbial barn, suggesting that the new strain has certainly reached other countries already.
At the same time, the possibility of a hard no-deal Brexit on December 31 has increased. Without a deal, the normal transfer of goods from and to Britain will end abruptly since no new procedures have been put into place.
The last round of negotiations on Sunday about a deal that would allow Britain common market access, failed. Fishing rights for EU countries in British waters was the one contentious issue while Britain’s adherence to EU rules if it wants free market access, was the other more important question that still needs to be settled.
Many Brexiteers believe that EU intransigence on fishing has scuppered the deal, when the matter actually revolves more around Britain’s free access to EU markets with lower working, health or quality standards, also referred to as “non-regression”. Lower standards would obviously give British companies an unfair advantage, which the EU negotiators will not accept.