Researchers have detected a highly contagious coronavirus variant in the United Kingdom, leading Prime Minister Boris Johnson to shut down parts of the country and triggering other nations to impose travel and shipping restrictions on England.
Mr. Johnson held a crisis meeting with ministers Monday after Saturday’s shutdown announcement. The prime minister said in a nationally televisedthat this coronavirus variant may be “up to 70% more transmissible than the old variant” and was probably responsible for an increase in cases in southeastern England.
“There is still much we don’t know. While we are fairly certain the variant is transmitted more quickly, there is no evidence to suggest that it is more lethal or causes more severe illness. Equally there is no evidence to suggest the vaccine will be any less effective against the new variant,” he said.
Public Health England says it is working to learn as much about the variant as possible. “We know that mortality is a lagging indicator, and we will need to continually monitor this over the coming weeks,” the agency says.
That scientific uncertainty about the variant’s threat shook European nations that were rushing to ship goods to England in advance of a Dec. 31 Brexit deadline. Under Brexit, which is short for “British exit,” the United Kingdom will leave the European Union on Jan. 31, 2020. Until then, the two sides will come up with new trade and security relationships.
European Union members Austria, Belgium, Bulgaria, France, Germany, Ireland, Italy, and the Netherlands announced travel restrictions hours after Johnson’s speech.
Those restrictions created food uncertainty across the U.K., which imports about a quarter of its food from the EU, according to The New York Times. Long lines of trucks heading to ports in the U.K. came to a standstill on major roads such as the M20 near Kent and the Port of Dover.
Outside Europe, Canada, India, Iran, Israel, Hong Kong, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey banned all incoming flights from the U.K. And more bans could come.
The U.S. reaction
The United States has not imposed any new limits on travel with the United Kingdom, although New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) has requested all passengers bound for John F. Kennedy International Airport from the U.K. be tested before boarding and a new travel ban be placed for Europe. He says the federal government must take action now to avoid a crisis situation like the one New York experienced in March and April.
“The United States has a number of flights coming in from the U.K. each day, and we have done absolutely nothing,” Mr. Cuomo said inon the governor’s webpage. “To me, this is reprehensible because this is what happened in the spring. How many times in life do you have to make the same mistake before you learn?”
Leading U.S. health officials have downplayed the dangers of the virus.
“We don’t know that it’s more dangerous, and very importantly, we have not seen a single mutation yet that would make it evade the vaccine,” U.S. Assistant Secretary of Health and Human Services Adm. Brett Giroir, MD,Sunday on ABC’s This Week with George Stephanopoulos. “I can’t say that won’t happen in the future, but right now it looks like the vaccine will cover everything that we see.”
Dr. Giroir said the HHS and other U.S. government agencies will monitor the variant.
“Viruses mutate,” he said. “We’ve seen almost 4,000 different mutations among this virus. There is no indication that the mutation right now that they’re talking about is overcoming England.”