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Emergence of Variant COVID Virus in the U.K. Impacts Food Supply from the EU


The emergence of a variant of SARS-CoV-2 characterized by multiple spike protein mutations was detected in the U.K. in late November.* Identifying the variant designated VOC 202012/01 (VOC stands for ‘Virus of Concern’) was possible due to the frequency of sequencing virus isolates from patients in the U.K.


The initial response to the report on the characterization of VOC 202012/01 resulted in bans on travel from the UK and a temporary suspension of deliveries of food and other items including vaccines from the EU. The action taken by EU nations may in fact be too late since there is evidence of variant strains of SARS-CoV-2 from Denmark, the Netherlands, Belgium, South Africa and Australia.  If so, it will not be possible to put the genie back in the bottle and the more infective strains will dominate. 


A combination of the variant virus and consequential restrictions together with the imminent  Brexit crash-out of the U.K. from the EU  resulted in massive congestion at ports of entry with over 1,500 semis stranded.  Trucks carrying food items from the EU were not delivering to the UK for at least 5 days.  Supermarkets posted notices that shortages of imported items were anticipated.


The gravity of this situation may be recognized by the fact that the Prime Minister, Boris Johnson convened a series of Cabinet Office Briefing Rooms (COBRA) emergency meetings.  These are called to coordinate actions of government departments in response to a national crisis.  COBRA is intended to facilitate decisions involving coordination of departmental action. COBRA meetings allow ministers of state, security, intelligence and the military services to communicate and define action.  A number of COBRA meetings were called in 2020 mainly dealing with coronavirus and its effects.  COBRA meetings have been held since the 1960's commencing with a major national strike and required for events such as floods and terrorist actions.


Effective Tuesday 22nd trans-Channel transport routes were re-opened and a food crisis appears to have been averted.


*The SARS-CoV-2 virus in the U.K. demonstrated a spontaneous mutation in the receptor-binding domain of the spike protein at position 501 with tyrosine replacing asparagine.  This mutation termed S:N501Y evidently allows the virus to bind more closely to ACE-2 (angiotensin-converting enzyme 2) compared to earlier isolates of SARS-CoV-2. The variant has 14 amino acid-altering mutations, 6 non-amino acid-altering mutations and 3 deletions. The mutations allow enhanced infectivity but not pathogenicity. The variant may be less susceptible to monoclonal antibody therapy but will not evade immunity stimulated by the two mRNA vaccines that are polyclonal.