The United Kingdom has detected two cases of a second "more transmissible" variant of the COVID-19 coronavirus, according to the country's Health Secretary Matt Hancock, in an initial report from the BBC.
Second 'more transmissible' COVID-19 strain in UK
The two people who tested positive with the new strain of the COVID-19 coronavirus had traveled to the U.K. from South Africa — where experts believe the variant is linked to a surge in local cases.
Travel restrictions on South Africa are now in effect, and anyone who has traveled to the country in the last two weeks — in addition to everyone with whom they came into close contact — are subject to immediate quarantine restrictions.
"We are incredibly grateful to the South African government for the rigor of their science and the openness and the transparency with which they have rightly acted as we did when we discovered a new variant here," said Hancock on this development.
UPDATE Dec. 23, 11:35 AM EST: Both viruses involve similar mutation
During the same briefing, Hancock said millions more people were moved to Tier 4 on Boxing Day — a national U.K. holiday.
The two recent COVID-19 variants — the first of which was found in the U.K., with the new second one detected from South Africa — share marked similarities despite evolving independently, in two geographic locations.
Both viruses involve a mutation — called N501Y — which has a critical role as part of the virus' ability to infect the cells of a human body.
UPDATE Dec. 23, 11:45 AM EST: UK Public Health official is 'confident' quarantines, travel restrictions will contain new COVID-19 variant
Professor Susan Hopkins of the U.K.'s Public Health England, said: "Both look like they are more transmissible" but they added experts are "still learning" the details of the new variant detected incoming from South Africa.
Hopkins added she was "pretty confident" present quarantine and travel restrictions would help slow the spread of the new COVID-19 variant.
UPDATE Dec. 23, 12:00 PM EST: Scientists in South Africa say new variant shows 'increased transmissibility'
South Africa-based scientists say the new COVID-19 variant spreads "rapidly" and quickly rose to dominance in the pandemic architecture of the global south country.
The scientists' report concluded: "Whilst the full significance of the mutations is yet to be determined, the genomic data, showing the rapid displacement of other lineages, suggest that this lineage may be associated with increased transmissibility."
UPDATE Dec. 23, 12:03 PM EST: CEO BioNTech's 'confidence' in vaccine against first new strain might extend to second
Days ago the German pharmaceutical company BioNTech — one of the developers of the first COVID-19 vaccine, currently in deployment worldwide — said it has "scientific confidence" its vaccine will work on the first variant.
The first new strain was detected mostly in London and England's southeast region, and it remains to be seen whether either of the new COVID-19 variants will be linked to more serious cases of the COVID-19 illness.
"We don't know at the moment if our vaccine is also able to provide protection against this new variant," said Ugur Sahin, CEO BioNTech during a news conference, AP News reports. "But scientifically, it is highly likely that the immune response by this vaccine can also deal with the new virus variants."
Since the newly-detected second COVID-19 variant displayed a similar mutation to the first one, Sahin's optimism may extend beyond the one U.K. variant alone. But until several weeks pass and we see the vaccine in action against the second and possible further coronavirus mutations, we can't say for sure.