COVID19 update, Winter Solstice edition: new strain in the UK, border closures; deep-dive into vaccines. [UPDATE: a little vaccine for the most vulnerable goes a long way]

There have been breathless media reports about a new strain of COVID in the UK. John Campbell gives some context.

For background: the UK, perhaps more than any other country, has been doing genomic analysis of actual viral samples. There are meanwhile over 1,100 “mutants” of the virus around, but most of these mutations amount to nothing — single amino acid substitutions or deletions in noncritical places. Beginning in September, however, a new strain was picked up that has about 17 changes to the spike protein, and meanwhile accounts for about 60% of infectivity in Greater London and in Kent.

Prof. Jacob Moran-Gilad from Ben-Gurion U.:

“The British are currently the world leaders in their rate of genetic sequencing for COVID-19 patient samples. That’s why they’re the ones that find these things. It’s very likely that what we are seeing in Britain is just the tip of the iceberg. There are most likely a lot of mutations we don’t yet know about because most of the world doesn’t consistently survey and track the mutation,” he said.

Mind you, evolutionary selection of viruses is for greater virulence (infectivity) and milder morbidity and mortality. So I would not be surprised if this strain will drive out other strains of the virus through competitive infection, but I would be extremely surprised if this strain turned out to have a higher infection fatality rate than the original — you could normally expect it to go down.

Dr. Campbell assumes that the change will not affect the efficacy of the vaccine — virologists I’ve talked to here tell me basically the same.

But other countries are not taking chances, and Belgium, Netherlands, Bulgaria,… Israel have all closed their borders to UK citizens for now, until there is a better idea what is going on. London and Kent have also been put under an internal travel advisory.

Speaking of vaccines, Israel kicked off its vaccination effort last Saturday night, with the PM and senior ministers getting jabs on live TV. There will not be a vaccine mandate here, but as of Sunday morning, you can make appointments with the major HMOs for the Pfizer vaccine if you are either medical personnel or over the age of 60. (You are also given a followup appointment for the 2nd shot.) The phone switchboard of the Maccabi HMO was down most of Sunday, but eventually we got an appointment. [UPDATE: more here on HMOs being flooded with requests for appointments.]

There have been sporadic reports of allergic reactions, but with 3.5 million doses having been distributed so far (and presumably some non-negligible fraction of these having been administered), this is expected by the law of large numbers alone. There is speculation that they may derive from the polyethylene glycol that is used to encapsulate the mRNA (otherwise it would degrade very quickly): possibly the Moderna vaccine, which got FDA EUA last Friday, may have an advantage there as it uses a different encapsulant.

Dr. Campbell is a big fan of the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine which was developed along more traditional lines. It can be produced at much lower per-unit cost and does not require storage and transport infrastructure at -50°C or so. Thus far, it has yet to obtain approval. Our own Brilife is still stuck in Phase II/III trials.

Finally, here is Dr. Seheult with a deep dive into RNA vaccines for COVID19, interviewing a leading researcher in the area.

Stay tuned for further updates.

UPDATE: a little vaccine, for the most vulnerable, goes a long way (via Instapundit)

As I’ve covered here previously, infection fatality rate is exponentially dependent on age. That preprint has meanwhile been published in the European Journal of Epidemiology: http://dx.doi.org/10.1007/s10654-020-00698-1. Moneygraf of the paper (IFR=infection fatality rate, in percent):

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