The strain discovered in the UK can be 70% more transmissible, and the best way to stay ahead is to dramatically increase rapid antigen testing.

The discovery and quick spread of a new Covid-19 variant in Southeast England has sounded alarm bells all over the world. The VUI-202012/01 mutation has sent one third of Britain into yet another quasi-lockdown, while dozens of countries quickly imposed travel bans to the UK.

So far scientists believe that this new strain doesn’t appear to raise the mortality rate or the severity of the illness. There’s also no evidence that the mutation will affect the efficacy of the three leading vaccines – at least for now. 

That said, the new strain is said to be up to 70% more transmissible – which could potentially spell disaster to containment strategies all over the world. 

New mutation accelerates transmission

For a virus that was already extremely contagious and hardly under control, such an increase in transmission rates could be catastrophic. While the hopes of a vaccine are slowly coming to reality, we’re still several months, if not years away from getting close to global herd immunity.

The key issue here is time, and this new variant has the potential to mess up the playing field entirely.

Up until now, the UK government has been on the losing end of a game of catch, relying almost exclusively on slow and expensive PCR tests for detection. The adoption of other types of test, such as rapid antigen, has been slow, erratic, and woefully insufficient given the dangerous levels of infection.

Cue to a game played 70% faster while our capacity to spot the virus remains the same and it’s not hard to imagine what happens next: blanket national lockdowns which punish everyone equally and lead to major economic damage. 

But it doesn’t have to be this way.

Increasing rapid antigen testing is key

We can and must react faster and take the initiative. The only way to win this battle is if we can see and predict our opponent’s moves. This translates into faster, affordable, widespread, much more frequent testing. 

While PCR continues to be the gold standard for diagnostics, the best way to currently stay ahead of this virus from an epidemiological standpoint is by using rapid antigen tests in a massive scale. Both lateral flow and instrument-read assays must be distributed to all corners of the globe, and must be used – and recognised – today.

Even if their accuracy is lower than a PCR test, it’s still much more useful to take a 70%-accurate test three times a week than a 97% test once a month. And we can do this today.

Storing and using test and vaccination data

Another aspect of this, if we are to restore freedom of movement in the current environment, is that we need make the most of the data. Decisions should be informed by a combination of data from frequent mass testing, plus symptom tracking – still an important part of clinical diagnosis – and vaccination records. 

These will give a dashboard to manage the pandemic more effectively, supporting decision making that might help to avoid such widespread blanket restrictions of freedom.

The new Covid-19 variant is not exclusive to the UK; it has also been detected in Denmark, Italy, Gibraltar, the Netherlands and Australia. As most countries don’t have the same extensive levels of genome sequencing of the virus as the UK, it’s really hard to assess the prevalence of the variant right now. 

But the danger that it’ll continue to grow is very real – unless we do something about it right now.