The variant, also known widely as B.1.351, has several significant mutations to the virus’ spike protein —E484K, K417N and N501Y — that make it easier for this variant to infect people, as well as potentially making it harder to treat, or to prevent with Covid vaccines.
In its latest weekly report, the WHO cited a Canadian study published in July but not peer reviewed that analyzed data from over 200,000 Covid-19 cases. It found that in comparison to non-variant of concern strains of Covid, the risks associated with variants containing the N501Y mutation (i.e. the alpha, beta and gamma variants) were significant and carrying a much higher risk of hospitalization, intensive care unit admission and death.
However, the WHO noted on Tuesday that when it comes to the beta variant, while “protection (is) retained against severe disease” there is “possible reduced protection against symptomatic disease and infection.”
Lawrence Young, a virologist and professor of molecular oncology at the Warwick Medical School at the U.K.’s University of Warwick, told CNBC on Wednesday that “we know that the delta variant outcompetes beta when it comes to transmissibility, but beta’s been hovering in the background for quite a while.”
“We know it’s more able to resist the vaccine. And all the data we have on that, particularly from South Africa, does raise concerns about that [the beta variant] being able to avoid vaccines in a population that’s only partially vaccinated or not vaccinated.”
So, is the U.K. right to ask arrivals from France to quarantine? Young isn’t convinced, attributing the move more to “panic” than reason.
“If you look at the current rates of beta infection across Europe, then Spain has a much higher rate. Recent data suggests it’s over 20% of positive cases in Spain whereas it’s around 3.8% in France,” he said.
“There’s a lot of inconsistency and I dare say, ‘knee-jerkism’. I don’t see why France has been singled out in this way.”