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The new variant of COVID-19 : Should you worry?

  • WORLD
  • Adrija Ray Chaudhury | Team PresentMirror | Updated: Dec. 31, 2020, 7:06 p.m.




Thanks to the new variant, the city of London has almost become unrecognisable at this time of the year, when it is otherwise bustling and crowded with happy faces. Meanwhile, over 40 countries have cut off travel ties with the U.K. to prevent its spread including India. The new strain is much more contagious but is it more deadly?


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On December 14, the U.K.’s health secretary Matt Hancock told politicians that a “new variant” of Covid-19 had been discovered in London and the southeast of England where cases had been rising dramatically. The new variant has already been declared “out of control” by the British health secretary and said it accounted for nearly two thirds of cases in London. The affected areas were plunged into newly invented “tier 4” restrictions, which Prime Minister Boris Johnson said are “broadly equivalent” to the harsh restrictions of earlier national lockdowns. Unfortunately, he had to face widespread criticism for fettering a supposedly conscious public with a ball and chain like condition during Christmas.

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Image Credits: BBC

Viral mutation is nothing unnatural

Mutation is a vital and necessary feature of biology. This means it is normal for viruses to change as they spread through a population. Covid-19 is no exception to this rule and researchers have already been able to identify over 12,000 different mutations by analyzing the viral genomes from almost 50,000 people around the world.

However, one thing worth mentioning is the way in which the U.K. has committed a lot of resources to studying the genomics of the virus, allowing us to take precautions at an early state of transmission. Scientists are pretty sure that there are similar strains in other countries as well and equal efforts from these countries will be highly beneficial in curbing the spread of the new variants.

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Image File : Empty streets of London during Christmas

While mutations aren't necessarily alarming, a virus may strike lucky by mutating in a way that positively affects its ability to survive and reproduce. Dr Lucy van Dorp, an expert in the evolution of pathogens at University College London says,"Viruses carrying these mutations can then increase in frequency due to natural selection, given the right epidemiological settings,".

A similar but unrelated variant has also emerged in South Africa, with a small number of cases now reported in the UK. The UK has two cases of variants found in South Africa.

The fact that both have mutations in a gene that encodes the spike protein, which the virus uses to latch on to and enter human cells, is particularly worrisome. The UK variant has 14 mutations that cause a change in protein building blocks (amino acids) and three deletions (missing bits of genetic code).

Where did it come from?

No one knows. Where the new variant arose is still a mystery. Scientists are promulgating intense research into the same.

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First night in London after the months of coronavirus; Image Credits: Euronews

"One possibility is that the variant came from someone who had a weak immune system, which allowed the virus to replicate for a much longer period of time than usual and gather lots of mutations," says Aris Katzourakis, an evolutionary virologist at the University of Oxford. “It seems like that was a kind of leap, something that essentially gave evolution a helping hand.” Researchers have previously seen the coronavirus change after an infection in immunocompromised patients. Such cases might help the virus pick up mutations that it might not otherwise during infections in other people with stronger immune systems.

No evidence of it being more lethal yet..

According to a Dec. 18 meeting summary from the U.K. New and Emerging Respiratory Virus Threats Advisory Group, people infected with B.1.1.7 strain (the new variant) have higher amounts of the coronavirus genetic material in the body and thereby have higher chances of passing on the virus to more people. On an average, the new strain has been found to be 70% more contagious. Studies have also shown that one of the variant’s mutations, called N501Y, might make B.1.1.7 more contagious — perhaps by helping it bind better to ACE2, a host protein that lets the virus into cells .

Dr Vin Gupta, a Critical Care physician and an assistant professor at the University of Washington claims the fight against the new variant to be an uphill climb as almost all forecasts have suggested that vaccination is really not going to impact the course of this pandemic until the early Spring, which only amplifies our concern as we have nothing to keep a check on the transmission before that.

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Image Credits: Hayvine

A mutation in B.1.1.7 leads to a shorter version of a viral protein called ORF8 than what’s seen in other variants. But it’s unclear what ORF8 does during an infection. Some modifications in ORF8 have actually been associated with less severe COVID-19 symptoms. Nevertheless, there is still no evidence of the variant causing more severe COVID-19 symptoms.

The U.K. variant is missing two amino acids that are targets of neutralizing antibodies, immune proteins that stop the virus from making it into a host cell. That, among a slew of other mutations in the B.1.1.7’s spike protein, could help the virus hide from some immune responses, including those induced by a vaccine.

Meanwhile, Pfizer and Moderna are already testing their Covid-19 vaccines against the new variant. Moderna expects immunity from its vaccine to protect against the variant and is performing more tests in the coming weeks to confirm, the company said in a statement to CNN.

Pfizer said it is “generating data” on how well blood samples from people immunised with its vaccine “may be able to neutralise the new strain from the UK,” according to the report. AstraZeneca too is confident of it's vaccine's efficacy against the virus. Ugur Sahin, a Turkish-German physician and CEO of BioNTech has added,“the beauty of the messenger technology is such that we can directly start to engineer a vaccine which completely mimics this new mutation. We could be able to provide a new vaccine,if needed technically within six weeks”.

India might just have a narrow escape..

Amidst all the adversities, noted virologist Dr Shahid Jameel gave us a ray of hope when he said India's curve for daily cases is on a downward slope since a peak in mid-September.

"At this time, we are getting about 25,500 cases daily compared to over 93,000 cases per day in mid-September. I believe the worst is over. But there will be small peaks in the future just as we witnessed in late November," he said. "Unexposed and susceptible people will continue to get infected. If immunity lasts a year or less, then we may have small peaks at regular intervals for the next few years. Good vaccine coverage will control this effectively," he added.

When asked about a possible second peak of Covid-19, noted clinical scientist Dr Gagandeep Kang opined the transmission will not be as rapid as was seen the first time and the peak will not be as high. Till now, 20 U.K. returnees have tested positive for the new strain in India. The same has taken Europe by storm. On the other hand, another new strain, yet more transmissible has been discovered in South Africa and has already travelled down to Australia, Japan and Britain. As of now, several countries including Israel, Germany, U.K., Switzerland and Turkey have already banned flights from South Africa.

We can only hope the new year brings us good health and efficient ways of dealing with the pandemic instead of manufacturing different variants of the already dreadful virus.

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