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UK coronavirus mutation ‘not surprising’, says expert

Yale School of Public Health Professor Dr. Howard Forman joins Yahoo Finance Live to discuss the new strain of the coronavirus in the United Kingdom.

Video Transcript

JULIE HYMAN: Let's talk about how seriously we should be taking this new strain. And for that, I want to bring in Dr. Howard Forman. He is a professor at the Yale School of Public Health. Our Anjalee Khemlani is joining us as well. Dr. Forman frequent guest on the show to help us try to sift through what is real and what is not when it comes to COVID-19 information.

So Dr. Forman, how are we to read? We know that there are a lot of strains of this thing, right? Viruses tend to have a lot of strains, especially new ones, as they develop. And how do you even get to this one spread 70% faster, for example?

HOWARD FORMAN: Yeah. Look, we know that viruses mutate. We know that RNA viruses mutate faster than others. And we know that this particular virus has been mutating all along. I think there are two things that have caught people's attention. One is this question of whether it's actually more infectious than the other strains have been. It is certainly possible that it is. But it's also not certain that it is.

One of the possibilities is that people perceive greater infectiousness just because the UK has just released the lockdown. They started to spread more, and you had a spike in cases that might have been reflecting this new variant. So we don't know for sure that this is more infectious. That's number one.

Number two, there's no evidence that it's more virulent. There's no evidence that it leads to more severe disease or more death. And I think the other most important thing right now is that what people have latched on to is this idea that the spike protein has mutated. And the spike protein, as we know, is how the virus gets into cells. And it is also how we've made all of our vaccines, at this point, as targeting the spike protein. There is no evidence that this change makes our vaccines any less effective at the moment.

So those, to me, are really important to remember at a time when humility must be paramount. We know very, very little. We should not panic about this.

ANJALEE KHEMLANI: Dr. Forman, Anjalee here. It looks like-- it sounds like, rather, that we're really waiting for more information. More studying needs to be done on this mutation. But at the same time, there's also reports that it may not be detected as easily, and so that could also cause concern. So how long more before we maybe have a better sense of what to really know about this, considering that we already saw some mutations earlier this year, notably in Seattle?

HOWARD FORMAN: Look, we've been seeing mutations. I think virologists have said we're getting, like, one to two mutations a month, or maybe a little more than that. So it's not that surprising that we're seeing this. Nothing about this suggests a reason to panic.

I do understand the reason why people are concerned. The UK is acting very forcefully. But even if you didn't know about the variant coming out right now, if you saw the spike in cases in the UK, you might act more forcefully. So we have to remember that to begin with.

And number two, the way the vaccine works, as opposed to the way monoclonal antibodies work, is that we create in our own bodies many, many different antibodies to the virus, to the spike protein. And these changes, these very modest changes to the spike protein right now are not sufficient to make us concerned that a vaccine would no longer work or even be highly, highly effective.

- So then, Dr. Forman, on this background, is it perhaps irresponsible of lawmakers to go out and broadcast, there's a mutation and now we're taking these measures, because I think as you're outlining, it's hard for the public to sift through all these nuances that you've been explaining to us.

HOWARD FORMAN: Yeah. Look, I can't judge their decision making right now because if you look at the UK, they have a very accelerating outbreak. So I don't think you can look at this in a vacuum and say that they're locking down because of the variant. They're locking down because they have an accelerating outbreak.

And I think within the next few days or weeks, people will have a much better understanding whether this really is more infectious, whether there are any other reasons to be concerned. And we're at this point where vaccination is going to start to mitigate, maybe not as fast as we'd like, but it is going to start to mitigate both in the UK as well as in the United States.

ANJALEE KHEMLANI: Speaking of vaccinations, Dr. Forman, I know that that has been seen as sort of the thing that will help dampen the curve, dampen the spread of the virus overall. You got the vaccine, and I know that you participated in one of the trials. Can you tell us how you feel right now and what the experience was?

HOWARD FORMAN: Yeah. Look, so I was in the Pfizer trial. I mentioned this on your show earlier. And in September, I got two doses of what apparently was normal saline, which means that I got a placebo. And so they unblinded the trial last week, and on Friday they gave me the option of receiving the actual vaccine and staying within the trial, but receiving the vaccine, effectively crossing over to the vaccine arm of the trial.

By evening that day, when I was working in the emergency room, I had the mildest amount of soreness in my arm that was noticeable, but not impairing anything that I had to do. The rest of my weekend was 100% uneventful. I had no symptoms whatsoever. Nothing prevented me from working again Sunday evening. Saturday was a day spent with my family.