EDINBURGH, Scotland—On Jan. 2, Boris Johnson was feeling pretty good about himself. Having just secured a massive majority in last year’s festive election, the British prime minister posted a thumbs-up photo of his grinning face with the caption: “This is going to be a fantastic year for Britain.” As 2020 draws to a close—with a mutant virus running riot through his country, Christmas canceled for millions, Brexit negotiations deadlocked, and nations around the world banning any kind of travel from Britain—it’s fair to say that Johnson’s prediction was somewhat wide of the mark.
Britain is in an unparalleled state of crisis. Johnson’s horrifying weekend television address, when he revealed a new, seemingly faster-spreading strain of the coronavirus was tearing through London, has had a domino effect around the world. More than 30 nations have slammed their doors shut to incoming British travel—most seriously, France has closed its U.K. border for two days, meaning no commercial transport of cargo can make its way in from Europe, raising fears of immediate food shortages days before Christmas.
Scientists, meanwhile, are hard at work trying to figure out whether B.1.1.7 is really more adept at human-to-human transmission—not everyone is convinced yet—and if so, why. They’re also wondering how it evolved so fast. B.1.1.7 has acquired 17 mutations all at once, a feat never seen before. “There’s now a frantic push to try and characterize some of these mutations in the lab,” says Andrew Rambaut, a molecular evolutionary biologist at the University of Edinburgh.