Scientists think the new Covid strain could spread faster between children - what we know so far

Tuesday, 22nd December 2020, 9:34 am
Updated Tuesday, 22nd December 2020, 9:35 am

The mutated strain of Covid-19 could more easily infect children, according to scientists.

Data suggests that the variant may spread faster among children than other strains, but analysis is still ongoing.

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Professor Neil Ferguson, a scientist on the Government’s New and Emerging Respiratory Virus Theatres advisory group (NervTag), said that during England’s second lockdown there was an age shift in the distribution of the virus.

Speaking at a Science Media Centre press briefing, the professor said, “There is a hint that it has a higher propensity to infect children that may perhaps explain some of the differences, but we haven’t established any sort of causality on that but we can see that in the data.

“What we’ve seen is, during the lockdown in England we saw a general distribution of the virus towards children, and what was true in the variant and the non-variant, and it is what we would expect, given that we had locked down which reduced adult contact but schools were still open.

“But what we’ve seen over the course of a five or six week period is consistently the proportion of pillar two cases for the variant in under 15s was statistically significantly high than the non-variant virus.

“We are still investigating the significance of that.”

‘Not specifically attacking children’

Fellow NervTag member, Professor Wendy Barclay, head of the department of infectious disease, Imperial College London, emphasised that the new virus strain isn’t exclusively targeting children.

She said, “We are not saying that this is a virus which specifically attacks children.

“We know that SARS-CoV-2, as it emerged as a virus, was not as efficient in infecting children as it was adults, and there are many hypotheses about that.

“And again, if the [new] virus is having an easier time of finding an entrance cell than that would put children on a more level playing field.”

The professor added that combining the fact that children are equally as susceptible to this strain of the virus and their mixing patterns with the likes of schools, then they would expect to see more children being infected.

Professor Barclay said, “It’s not just the viruses specifically targeting them, but it’s just that it’s now less inhibited, if you like, to get into the children.”

‘New strain will become more dominant’

Professor Ferguson said that it was “highly likely” that this strain of the virus will become the more dominant one in the UK.

He said, “I think it’s highly likely to, from the trends we’ve seen so far, and how it’s spread in the areas which got infected first. Of course, making predictions is a dangerous thing.”

Professor Ferguson added that he thinks that both versions of the virus will decline over the next two weeks due to the tightening of Covid-19 restrictions in the run up to Christmas.

“Contact rates tend to be lower over Christmas with the tightening of Christmas measures and Tier 4 in place for the highest areas,” he said.

“I would hope certainly to be seeing the virus decrease.

“If we do, that will give us some sense of the level of controls which need to be in place, the real question then is, how much are we able to relax measures in the new year, and still retain control.”

Vaccine still effective

In a statement about the new strain of Covid-19, Public Health England (PHE) said, “There is currently no evidence to suggest that the Pfizer vaccine would not protect against the new strain.

“Further laboratory work is currently being undertaken as a priority to understand this.”

Germany’s Health Minister, Jens Saphn, said that “according to everything we know so far,” the new strain “has no impact on the vaccines,” and that the vaccines will remain just as effective.

The French government has also echoed this sentiment, explaining in a statement, “This genetic variant does not seem to entail, at this stage of knowledge, a heightened seriousness or a resistance to the vaccine.”

Vin Gupta, an affiliate assistant professor from the University of Washington’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation, said he is confident that the current vaccines being produced will continue to protect against different strains of Covid-19.

He said, “There is a strong belief here that the vaccine as it exists today will have effectiveness in warding off infection from this new strain in England, in addition to the old strain we’ve been contending with for months now.”

Gupta explained that this is because, at the genetic level, the new strain is likely to be “very similar” to prior strains of the virus.

“The effectiveness of these vaccines in producing antibodies that can really attack and kill Covid-19 is extraordinary,” he added.

“I don’t expect these minor changes at the genetic level to affect the vaccines’ performance in the near term.”