While we were slowly getting our Christmas decorations ready for the new year, sudden news hit the press about a new variant of coronavirus that had been detected in the UK. It has already spread to the Netherlands, Italy, Denmark, and Australia. Meanwhile, countries such as France, Canada, and Ireland banned all flights from the UK. So is this something we should be alarmed about?
Mutations are a common feature for viruses. In DNA replication, DNA polymerases do proofreading to ensure the replication is being done correctly. However, RNA polymerases do not have this feature which prevents them from doing proofreading. So enzymes can’t correct their mistakes and when they can’t correct them, mutations occur.
Viruses such as coronavirus or HIV are RNA based viruses that are more prone to mutation than DNA based viruses. Since the start of the pandemic, coronavirus mutated several times, more than 12,000, but these were usually one letter mutations that did not create a crucial effect on the structure of the protein. Even if they do change it, they are more likely to be detrimental to the virus than improve it.
The concern in our case is the new variant, B.1.1.7 as it is known, has mutations close to the spike protein of the virus. You can view a spike protein as the key to the door of our bodies. They fuse the membrane of the virus to ours and then take over. They are also the basis of coronavirus vaccines too. Hence, a lot of studies have to be conducted to fully understand what these mutations mean. One study indicates that one of the mutations makes antibodies from the blood of survivors less effective at attacking the virus.
Does Mutation Make The Infection Of Coronavirus More Severe?
There is not enough data in our hands to conclude the mutation makes the infection more severe. Nevertheless, early analyses say that it has increased transmission rates by up to 70%. The mutation was observed in September first. In a relatively short time, it was responsible for approximately 60% of the cases in London in the week ending December 9 and the numbers are increasing. This is what makes it stand out from other mutations in the coronavirus.
Can Mutation Be Detected By Tests?
Generally, PCR tests in the markets target multiple areas of the spike protein of coronavirus. So they can still be used to detect the virus.
Will The Vaccines Still Work?
The mRNA-based vaccines use the genetic code of the virus as a template to replicate its parts inside our body. Then our immune system sees these parts, recognises, and then attacks. The vaccines such as Pfizer and Moderna are “polyclonal”, meaning the antibodies they produce target several areas of the spike protein. Therefore, vaccines will work fighting with the new variant. Scientists are alarmed because if it accumulates more mutations in the future this might be a problem.
Lastly, “The average person doesn’t need to worry about this,” Dr. Adalja, a Senior Scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, says. “It’s something that scientists and those of us in the field need to think about and wonder what it means, but the same recommendations apply since the beginning and apply to any strain, whether it has a mutation or not.”