Expert: Little to support new UK COVID-19 strain greater potency claims

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Univeristy of Tartu virologist Andres Merits.

There is little empirical evidence suggesting a new COVID-19 strain recently identified in the United Kingdom is indeed as contagious as reports have said, University of Tartu virologist Andres Merits says.

At the same time, restrictions help in dealing with viral mutations, though they have little effect on the spread of the virus as it is now, he added.

Talking to Vikerraadio show "Uudis+" Monday, Merits said that he had see just the one piece of real, scientific work on the new strain, over the past day.

Estonia, along with several other EU countries, announced Sunday night that it was halting flight links between it and the U.K., just before Christmas and with days to go until the Brexit transition period ends on December 31, following news that the strain was many more times infectious than others seen during the pandemic so far.

The list of countries cutting flight links has since grown – with the one country the U.K. shares a land border with, the Republic of Ireland, joining on Monday – and continues to grow, while France has barred most cross-channel freight transit.

Reports say that the strain is not more fatal than existing variations, so far as is known, and that it has no impact on the effectiveness of new coronavirus vaccines – themselves first administered in the U.K. earlier in the month.

Merits said that viral mutations are a normal course of events, which made things more difficult, but did not present an obstacle in themselves.

Furthermore, additional restrictions would not change anything, since as the virus has so far propagated globally even in regions with the toughest regulations, there is nothing to suggest new rounds of regulations would curb the spread any further. At the same time, restrictions would reduce the scope for viral mutation and new strains, he said.

Continued mutation and the emergence of new strains do not mean vaccines should be developed on a continual basis, he added.

He said: "The virus is always changing; there is no other option, it doesn't want to stay put under any circumstances. The likelihood that current options will be able to do this is very, very low."

Merits added that the coronavirus is genetically significantly more stable than influenza viruses, and that the easiest way to reduce the risk of new viral strains is nonetheless to limit the spread of the virus. 

"The more the virus is given the opportunity to reproduce, the more it will have the opportunity to come out with some new inconvenience," he said.

Merits echoed the words of the government's scientific council chief Professor Irja Lutsar, also a University of Tartu virologist, in saying that no new strain like that reported in the U.K. had been identified in Estonia so far, but that genotyping was needed more to ascertain this.

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Editor: Andrew Whyte

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