What do we know about the Russian variant of COVID-19 and how contagious is it?



Concerns have been raised after a new strain of COVID-19 was detected in Queensland this week.

Known as the Russian variant, health authorities are still working through the details of the strain to determine how contagious it might be.

What do we know about the Russian strain?

Not a lot.

Except that it has been circulating in the UK, Thailand and Switzerland from about early December.

The official name for the variant is B.1.1.317.

Professor of Infectious Diseases at the ANU Medical School, Peter Collignon, said it was important not to overreact to new strains of the virus appearing.

“This is like a lot of other variants we hear about, the South African variant, there’s a Brazilian variant, there’s now a Californian variant, there’s a New York variant,” Professor Collignon told ABC Radio Brisbane.

“Some of them do spread more, but there seems to be a great overreaction to these strains.

“They spread the same way, they spread mainly by droplets, which means larger particles that infect people when they’re close together, so all the things we’ve done to decrease the risk before should work against these strains.”

He said cases like the one in Adelaide in November last year, where the new strain had “certain characteristics” like a short incubation period “was wrong”.

“The lockdowns we’ve had because of the UK strain, it really hasn’t made any difference.

“So I think we run the real risk of overreacting. Some of them might spread more readily but they spread exactly the same way as all the other strains.

“So we just need to keep on doing what we’ve done very successfully.”

Queensland University of Technology Virologist Professor Kirsten Spann said it was difficult to understand the “significance” of this variant.

“I’ve been sort of going through the literature and it seems there’s not a lot reported at least about what the exact mutations are,” she said.

How many cases are in Queensland?

At the moment health authorities are only aware of two cases in Queensland, both of which were detected in hotel quarantine.

Hospital staff in PPE at a dedicated COVID-19 testing clinic.
Additional testing will be conducted on at-risk travellers including two nose and throat swabs, as well as a blood test.(AAP: David Mariuz)

The two people had travelled on Qatar Airways QR898 from Doha.

Queensland Health says genomic testing is also being carried out on a third person who was on the same flight and who has tested positive to COVID-19.

A fourth person on the same flight has also tested positive to COVID-19 but has since travelled to New Zealand.

All 74 travellers on the flight will undergo additional testing as they may have been exposed to the Russian variant.

Seven more cases of coronavirus were detected in Queensland on Thursday.

It is not known if any of these cases are the Russian variant.

Why is it called the Russian variant?

Professor Collignon said the name basically comes from the origin of the variant.

“We’re becoming very xenophobic —I saw one headline or article from Russia — they’re not worried about the Russian strain, they’re worried about the UK strain,” he said.

“So everybody becomes paranoid that whenever it’s from somewhere else it’s much worse and we need to put up more barriers, yet there’s really no good evidence they spread any different way.”

In the end, he said, it’s also just easier for us to understand than the official name of B.1.1.317.

Meanwhile, University of Queensland virologist Dr Kirsty Short said while the variant was discovered in Russia it might not have emerged there, which means its name might be a misnomer.

How do variants of coronavirus occur?

Professor Collignon said it was basically the same virus with a different blueprint.

Mercure sign on the top of the hotel in Brisbane's CBD.
International travellers have been quarantined in Brisbane’s Mercure Hotel.(ABC News: Stephen Cavenagh)

“There’s a few hundred of them [variants] already,” he said.

“Any bacteria or virus changes in time …. this occurs naturally.

“It may give it some ability to survive or spread more readily.”

Professor Kirsten Spann said mutations of the virus would continue to form in the years to come, similar to influenza.

“We should be prepared that this is going to happen all the time, and it’s not necessarily a cause for alarm.

“But then again there needs to be that constant surveillance of the SASRS-CoV-2 virus genome globally because this will keep happening.

“We’ve already seen the UK strain the South African strain, it will keep happening so we need to be diligent in identifying them, but understanding the disease impact and transmissibility is going to be difficult.”

How contagious are new variants of coronavirus?

Professor Collignon said he would not be surprised if certain variants spread more readily.

“Have they changed so much that they are more infectious? It does appear to be the case with the UK strain,” he said.

“It’s taken a couple of months to be sure the UK strain was more infectious.

“But is it due to the strain, or more young people moving it around?

“At the end of the day the people who are most at risk are people who are in the same room, close to people with the same symptoms. Hands might transmit it but it’s not a large factor.

“That is not different in any of those strains.”

QUT Professor of Public Health Gerry Fitzgerald said it was common for new strains to be more infectious, because the properties of viruses meant less infectious mutations would die out.

“The variants we are seeing are probably more infectious but what it appears to be is that they are not more dangerous or more severe than the other variants, or the variant that caused the initial outbreak,” Professor Fitzgerald said.

“So that’s good news.”

Will the vaccine still work on the Russian variant?

Not enough is known about the Russian variant at this stage to be sure.

“So far all the evidence is they [vaccines] do [work] but we’ll have to wait and see,” he said.

“Until we find variants that don’t respond to the vaccines, that’ll be a problem.”

Professor Gerry Fitzgerald was cautiously optimistic the vaccine would be effective against the Russian variant, with early research suggesting it would still neutralise the disease caused by the UK and South African strains.

A line up of needles containing the COVID-19 vaccine.
At this stage there’s no reason to believe the vaccines wouldn’t work against the strain.(AAP: Nigel Hallett)

“The other good news is that the vaccines probably are equally effective against the new variant,” Professor Fitzgerald said.

“This is all new information, and the research is going on as we speak so that may change.

“But at the present time there is some degree of comfort, I suppose, among the scientific community that the vaccines will be protective against the news strains.”

Professor Spann said at this stage it would depend on where the mutation was and if it changed the spike protein of the virus.

“So fundamentally that the antibodies produced by the vaccine no longer bind to that spike protein, that would have to be a very large mutation to actually fundamentally change that antibody virus binding reaction that we need for effective vaccine,” she said.

“Whether this mutation does that or not, I don’t imagine anyone knows that yet, but I’m sure people are testing it,” she said.

How does this change hotel quarantine?

A policeman in a face mask standing a distance away from a group of people with bags outside a hotel
Seventy-four travellers in Queensland will undergo further testing for the Russian variant.(ABC News: Chris Gillette)

Not much, at this stage.

The passengers who arrived last month were told they needed to quarantine for an additional five days, because the detection of the variant occurred so late into their usual quarantine period.

They were also told to undergo specific additional testing, including a nose and throat swab, as well as a blood test, and a second nose and throat swab two days later.

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