After a year of researching and combatting COVID-19, a new strain of the novel coronavirus was discovered in the U.K. last week. This variant is becoming the most prominent strain throughout southern England, but has also been discovered in Denmark, Italy, Netherlands, and South Africa. While scientists do not believe that this strain is more dangerous, they do think that it is 40-70% more transmissible. According to CNN, World Health Organization officials believe that “someone with the new U.K. strain could infect an average of 1.5 other people, rather than the 1.1 average for the earlier strain of the coronavirus.” Aside from an increased risk of infection, this new version of COVID-19 is having devastating effects on travel and trade, both inside the U.K. and around the world.
The worst effects are being felt within England and mainland Europe where the virus is ravaging the economy. One area where regulations are most prominent is the Port of Dover which connects southern England to its trading partner, France—usually about 10,000 trucks pass through the port each day. France closed its border last Sunday upon the discovery of the new strain, hoping to keep it from infecting the French population. As a result, thousands of truckers and drivers travelling home before the holidays were trapped in their cars and prevented from entering for a full 48 hours as France worked to develop a testing program. Although the restrictions were seen as a necessary precaution, they left many truckers trapped in the cabs of their trucks without food or money with little time before Christmas. The Guardian reports that drivers are now permitted to cross through the port if they can provide evidence of a “negative coronavirus test taken within the previous 72 hours.” While the tests are finally decongesting the port, delays are expected to continue into the next week and questions remain for how positive tests will be dealt with. Additionally, the delay on commercial traffic could result in produce shortages throughout Britain due to supply chain setbacks, which is even more concerning near the holidays.
Other countries have followed suit by closing their borders to English travellers. The majority of these limitations have been imposed by European countries, but more distant states including India, Canada, Hong Kong, and Jordan have joined, with Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and Oman shutting down all incoming and outgoing travel. These actions reflect scientists’ assertion that the strain may very likely be present in a variety of other countries that lack accurate detection methods. Despite heightened concerns, the United States initially failed to impose any travel restrictions but decided Friday that all U.K. travellers will need to test negative for COVID-19 before entering.
This new variant is also putting significant strain on the global economy, harkening back to the dramatic market fluctuations at the beginning of the pandemic. According to Reuters, “the British pound tumbled 2.5% against the dollar at one point before paring some of the losses, while the yield on two-year U.K. government bonds hit a record low” after the strain’s discovery. Outside of Europe, every leisure sector of Wall Street—most notably those involved with travel such as airlines and cruise ship companies—have recorded negative trends since the announcement of the new strain. Another concern for many Europeans was that this new information may affect trade talks between Britain and the E.U. which had a deadline of the end of the year; however, a trade deal was agreed upon Thursday which will hopefully ease the variant’s strain on the economy.
Despite the stress and disappointment that this discovery has caused, there are many positives that may make its impact less severe. First, although this variant has almost 24 mutations, there is no evidence that it is more lethal than previous versions, and scientists believe that the currently available vaccines should also work on the new strain. Britain’s Prime Minister Boris Johnson cancelled Christmas gatherings for all Brits and placed strict restrictions on the country, hoping to curb a new rise in cases and catch the infection early. While this is a necessary preventative measure, cases could still rise rapidly if other countries do not respond similarly and continue to loosely enforce safety measures like what has happened in Sweden. This new coronavirus strain should serve as a reminder to the global community that our fight against COVID-19 is far from over, and that we cannot let our guard down or stop following the important guidelines. With its potential to mutate frequently, COVID-19 remains a threat which we all must combat together.