Could the new variant cause further havoc?
COVID-19 Variant: What we know about this new mutation
In early December a new variant of COVID -19 was detected in the UK, raising concerns across the world. SARS-CoV-2 has already significantly impacted the world, with 84 million cases worldwide and nearly 2 million deaths. Could the new variant cause further havoc? Is it something we should be worried about? Today we will have a look at what we know so far about the virus.
To start with we should go over viral mutations. Unlike complex organisms, viruses are highly prone to genetic mutations, even more than bacteria. All organisms including humans, birds, even worms, are prone to mutations as well. However due to their complexity, there is much higher risk of mutations causing significant problems with their cellular and genetic processes, problems that are often incompatible with life, or lead to cancer. For this reason, there are significant genetic roadblocks present to prevent such mutations from occurring.
Viruses on the other hand have genetic replication machinery of poor “quality”, prone to introducing mutations. Since they replicate quickly, with little care on which viral particles survive, it matters little if hundreds of viruses do not survive, as further thousands will and continue to spread in their host. It is for this reason we have such difficulty treating viruses or making viruses against them .
The variant was first picked up by the COVID-19 Genomics UK consortium, which undertakes random genetic sequencing of positive COVID-19 samples across the UK. Since April they have sequenced 140,000 virus genomes, to identify and track outbreaks across the UK. The strain was first identified in September and sequenced in early October. However, the significance of this strain was not realized until the end of the year. By 13th December 1108 cases had been identified across 60 different locations, though the true number is likely much higher. In Norfolk, it accounts for nearly 20% of all samples.
17 Variations have been identified, most significantly in the spike protein the virus uses to bind to the ACE2 receptor found in the lungs. Changes in this protein may have resulted in it being more infectious and spreading more quickly between people. A review of current evidence has shown the rate of transmission was 71% higher than the other variants and may also have a much higher viral load. This has given it an advantage over the other COVID-19 strains- it has already been detected in South Africa, Europe, and America, and it is likely to become the dominant global strain in the near future.
It appears children are more susceptible to catching this virus. The virus propagated at a time when schools were open and running, whilst the rest of the country remained in lockdown. This may have provided a larger pool of children for the virus to spread in, resulting in this change. However, this does not mean that the virus “attacks” children, rather it is able to attach to ACE2 receptors in children’s lungs with greater ease and spread quickly.
The most important question on everyone’s mind – will the vaccine be effective against this new strain? If not, lockdown rules may be extended until new vaccines are discovered, and by then newer strains may leapfrog ahead and make the new vaccines irrelevant again.
So far experts believe that the new variant is unlikely to make vaccines ineffective. The vaccines all produce antibodies against the viral spike protein, but so far it appears the mutation has not changed the shape or function of the spike protein enough for antibodies to fail against it. The antibodies should be able to recognize enough sites on the spike protein to successfully attach, neuter the protein, and present the virus for destruction by the body’s immune system. Unfortunately, it will take some time to fully understand the effects of the mutation, though we can remain hopeful for now
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