Coronavirus: Should France be Worried about the Covid-19 Variant Detected in the United Kingdom?

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Should France be worried about new coronavirus Covid-19 mutation

EPIDEMIC: France and many countries have quarantined the United Kingdom where a variant of the coronavirus circulates, suspected of making Covid-19 more contagious

  • Borders which are closing, a barometer of increasing anxiety … The appearance of a new strain of Covid-19 in the United Kingdom has caused some chaos in Europe a few days before Christmas.
  • Indeed, it is suspected of making the coronavirus more contagious, however there is no alert on an increase in severe cases and mortality. The World Health Organization reassured Monday evening: the new variant of the virus “is not out of control”.
  • France has suspended its land and air links with the United Kingdom since Sunday evening. But will this be enough to prevent the arrival on the territory of this variant? “20 Minutes” takes stock.

The list of countries suspending their flights to or from the United Kingdom is growing on Monday. After France and Germany, on Sunday, the rest of Europe and the world are quarantining the United Kingdom , where a new variant of the coronavirus has been detected in recent days. President of the Republic Emmanuel Macron called on Monday to “redouble our vigilance” after a “problematic mutation” of the coronavirus which justified the suspension for 48 hours of all arrivals from British soil. If the scientific community still has little certainty about this variant and its consequences, concern is warranted. 

Why is this variant so worrying?

This is not the first time that the coronavirus has been observed to evolve. “It is normal that there are variants, since the virus has a tendency to mutate, nuance Olivier Schwartz , head of the Virus and Immunity unit at the  Institut Pasteur. An RNA virus is made up of a sequence of about 30,000 letters. When it enters a cell, it will make new copies of this sequence thanks to an enzyme. From time to time, this enzyme can make mistakes. Most of the time, this mutation puts the coronavirus at a disadvantage. “If it produces a selective advantage, the latter virus will be selected because it can multiply more efficiently than the parental virus,” continues the virologist. This is a phenomenon that happens often and shows the ability of the virus to adapt to its host. ”

This variant from Great Britain can cause concern for several reasons. “In the United Kingdom, a rapid progression has been observed on the part of this variant among the viruses sequenced”, notes Florence Debarre, researcher at the CNRS and specialist in epidemiological modeling. Is it due to chance? Has super-propagating events? Or the sign that this variant makes the coronavirus more contagious?

“For the moment, we only have epidemiological studies, stammering, which show that it spreads quickly”, nuances the virologist. The British authorities have in any case signaled to the rest of the world that these mutations could make the coronavirus more contagious. A hypothesis that laboratory studies must come to invalidate or confirm. “You have to purify the virus to see how it behaves,” says the virologist. “We have suspicions, but no proof, insists Florence Debarre. On the other hand, we know that this variant is characterized not by one, but by about twenty mutations. A higher number than the other variants observed. “” And that these mutations concern the spike protein[also called the Spike protein, which acts as a key to enter the cell], continues Olivier Schwartz. There is therefore a risk of increased contagiousness, but these mutations do not appear to have an effect on the severity of the disease. Nor on mortality. “We do not yet have enough data to say whether this variant would have an effect on the severity of the disease”, adds Florence Debarre.

Is this mutant virus already in France?

Asked Monday morning on Europe 1 , Olivier Véran stressed that “over the last few days, 500 viral strains have been identified and analyzed in genetics, this variant has not been found”. Indeed, some PCR tests in France can identify this variant. “For now, it has not been detected in France,” confirms the Ministry of Solidarity and Health on Monday evening. However, we know that it circulates a lot in the United Kingdom and that a case was detected in Italy on Sunday. Two countries bordering France. Suffice to say that it would be quite surprising if our country did not spot this variant on its territory, despite the flights suspended on Sunday evening. The minister also warned: “It is quite possible that the virus is circulating in France. ”

What strategy can France adopt to limit its consequences?

On the material level, for the moment, therefore, not all people coming from the United Kingdom can reach France and should probably do a PCR test in the future. On Tuesday, the European Union must try to harmonize the measures decided by the member states to prevent arrivals from the United Kingdom. Measures discussed at expert level will be submitted to the ambassadors of the member states on Tuesday. They will have to agree on their duration and coordinate on their scope. “It is up to the European Union to establish a course of action without which an English patient could very well reach France via Belgium”, illustrates the entourage of the Minister of Health. Otherwise, the National Reference Centers are redoubling their vigilance to identify whether this variant is found in the sequencing of viruses in circulation from PCR tests. ”

If this vigilance turns out to be insufficient, the “test, trace, isolate” strategy remains valid. The infected person (s) would be isolated with the utmost care. The good news is that barrier gestures still work against this variant of the coronavirus. “We must not be alarmist, but continue to monitor and take precautions,” reassures Olivier Schwartz. The attention, the means to learn more about this variant and the communication between the countries are increased tenfold today. This variant is being monitored in the UK. “Calls for monitoring this variant are also coming from the European Center for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC),” explains Florence Debarre.

What possible impact on treatments and vaccines?

On Monday, the European Medicines Agency (EMA) validated the vaccine from Pfizer and BioNTech . A decision that paves the way for a vaccination campaign before the end of the year in the European Union. Problem, as for Moderna, this vaccine is based on a new technique called messenger RNA. Its principle? Instead of injecting the attenuated or deactivated virus, we will inject a messenger RNA encoding the Spike protein, the one that is present on the surface of the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus.However, if this protein evolves enormously, will our immune system, despite the vaccine, still be able to recognize it? “Only a small part of the Spike protein would be modified by this variant, the other parts remain the same”, reassures Florence Debarre, who participates in the Adioscorona site . The European medicines regulator said on Monday that there was “no evidence” to say that the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine would not protect against a new strain of the coronavirus, found mainly in the UK.

Olivier Véran was just as reassuring on the question of tests as vaccines, this Monday on Europe 1 . “A priority, the PCR (test) remains just as effective for diagnosing this variant of the virus and the antibodies developed by the two main vaccines which arrive do not target this mutated area of ​​the virus. So, a priori, there is no reason to believe that vaccines would be less effective ”.

Same questioning about treatments. “Some, like the one used by Donald Trump, are based on monoclonal antibodies that bind to the Spike protein,” explains Olivier Schwartz of the Institut Pasteur . It will be necessary to see whether this type of treatment is still active against this variant or if they do not recognize this modified protein. 

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