Dr. Shuvomoy Banerjee, PhD; Neucrad Health Desk, 19th Jan, 2021
Dr. Henry Walke from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that new coronavirus strains are evolving and spreading rapidly. This has threatened the already existing burden on our health care system even if the vaccination against SARS-CoV-2 has been already developed. Let’s understand about this sudden arrival of the mutant coronavirus strains and the rising concerns revolving around it.
The new variants of Coronavirus and its global spread so far
A new variant of the coronavirus, identified as B.1.1.7 was first detected around September in London that quickly became responsible for about a quarter of cases in the city in the next 2 months and about two-third cases by 2020 end. Interestingly, this new strain has the ability to spread easily and quickly than the other existing strains, according to the CDC. At least 8 U.S. states and 33 countries including the United Kingdom, Australia, Canada, France, Germany, Denmark, China, India, Brazil, Chile, Belgium, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, Finland, Iceland, Ireland, Israel, Italy, Japan, Jordan, Lebanon, Malta, The Netherlands, Norway, Pakistan, Portugal, Singapore, South Korea, Taiwan, Turkey, the United Arab Emirates has detected the presence of B.1.1.7 so far!
Another new strain has been found in South Africa called 501.V2. This strain is even more contagious and causes more severe illness as reported by the US Coronavirus task force. Dr. Anthony Fauci of the US Coronavirus task force alerted that 501.V2 may already be present in the United States.
Major mutations of this new variant of Coronavirus
SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes the disease COVID-19, acquires about one new mutation in its genome every 2 weeks, according to the CDC. The U.K. and South African variants also have several mutations.
Of note, research analysis showed 23 genetic changes in the new strain of the UK precisely out of which 17 are potentially crucial alterations. Interestingly, mutations have been noted mainly for the spike protein (the one that helps the coronavirus to enter a host cell). For better understanding we are sharing 2 such key main mutations below:
- One of the mutations is the N501Y, which has altered the “receptor-binding domain” of the spike present on the virus surface, giving it an edge for making better contact with the host cell surface. According to a leading Infectious Disease Experts, Dr. Anthony, the mutations have enhanced the ability of the virus receptors to bind on the cell, therefore causing its better transmission too!
- Another key mutation is an H69/V70 deletion, which has removed a small but important part of the spike. Prof Ravi Gupta from the University of Cambridge has indicated two-fold increased infectivity due to this mutation from his research works. Furthermore, his group demonstrated fewer effective antibodies from recovered patients.
Are the new strains more Contagious?
“There’s some preliminary suggestion that it’s more contagious, and, although that’s not proven, scientists are noticing a surge of cases in areas where the new strain is appearing, and there could be a connection.” Till now CDC reported no evident cases of more severe illness or increased risk of death due to B.1.1.7. However, based on the affected population and hospital treatment data in Britain, UK Scientists estimate 40-70% more infections due to this new strain.
On the other hand, the South Africa variant is said to be even more easily transmitted than the new U.K. Variant as per the British Health Secretary Matt Hancock! This higher speed of transmission or potentially increased pathogenicity of 501.V2 has become the cause of concern right now.
Will there be other new strains of the coronavirus?
Over time, viruses also do get benefit from natural selection. “New strains of the SARS-CoV-2 virus are detected every week”. However, only some continue to exist and spread, otherwise, most of the new strains pop up and discontinue. Mutations are inevitable as long as the coronaviruses infect and spread through living beings, henceforth, being alert and vigilant about the driving trend following any infection through the population is the key for managing the coronaviruses.
Will the vaccines work against the new variant?
We know that the leading vaccine companies in the world have utilized the spike protein to evoke an immune response against SARS-CoV-2. Insignificant spike mutation won’t stop the vaccines to work effectively, however, if more mutations add-up to the spike, then the virus may have a potential chance to dodge the vaccines and infect people. Interestingly, these new strains and their infectivity is a clear indication of the continuing adaptation by the virus. Prof David Robertson’s presentation from the University of Glasgow concluded: “The virus will probably be able to generate vaccine escape mutants”. If this happens, then the vaccine needs to be developed for each and every concerning coronavirus strain just as it happens in case of flu!
Until more data collection from larger populations and research analysis happens, we should continue to strictly follow health measures and safety precautions for Covid-19 viz. wearing facial masks, maintaining physical distancing, avoiding crowded and enclosed public places, using sanitiser, hand-wash etc to keep the virus away as much as possible.
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