December 23 2020 at 04:02 PM by Samikshya Joshi
NEW VARIANT OF VIRUS THAT CAUSES COVID-19 DETECTED
Viruses constantly change through mutation, and new variants of a virus are expected to occur over time. Sometimes new variants emerge and disappear. Other times, new variants emerge and start infecting people.
The virus that causes COVID-19 is a type of coronavirus, a large family of viruses. Coronaviruses are named for the crown-like spikes on their surfaces. Scientists monitor changes in the virus, including changes to the spikes on the surface of the virus.
United Kingdom (UK) has reported a rapid increase in COVID-19 cases in London and southeast England since November 2020. This rapid increase in cases has been linked to a different version-or variant-of the virus. The ECDC said a few cases with the new variant have been detected in Iceland, Denmark, and The Netherlands. The agency also cited media reports confirming cases in Belgium and Italy also.
The new variant of the coronavirus named “VUI 202012/01” includes a genetic mutation in the “spike” protein that could be the cause of the immediate and easy spread of the virus amongst people but is said to be up to 70% more transmissible than the previously dominant strain in the United Kingdom. The British variant has about 20 mutations, including several that affect how the virus locks onto human cells and infects them. These mutations may allow the variant to replicate and transmit more efficiently.
Recent reports indicate that about 6 in 10 cases reported in London are caused by the new variant. Genetic analysis of the new variant shows changes to the spikes on the virus and to other parts of the virus. Initial studies suggest that the new variant may spread more easily from person to person. So far, scientists in the UK sees no evidence that infections by this variant cause more severe disease.
WHAT WE DO NOT KNOW
It is still very early in the identification of this variant, so we have a great deal to learn. More studies on the new variant are needed to understand
1. How widely the new variant has spread in the UK and potentially around the world.
2. How the new variant differs from earlier variants
3. How the disease caused by this variant differs from the disease caused by other variants that are currently circulating.
Several European countries and Australia have detected the new, faster-spreading variant of COVID-19. In South Africa, authorities believe that a new variant detected there is not the same as the one in the UK.
The head of the Robert Koch Institute (RKI), Germany's disease control authority, said on Tuesday he assumes the new variant has already reached Germany from Britain.
AUSTRALIA DETECTS VARIANT
But it has also been confirmed as far as Australia, which said on Monday it had detected cases of the new fast-spreading UK variant. Two travelers from the UK to Australia's New South Wales state is said to have been found carrying the mutated variant. Both individuals have been placed in hotel quarantine. Australia has seen cases in Sydney rise in recent days, but authorities don’t believe the rise in infections comes from the newly detected mutation.
Dozens of domestic flights have been canceled, as the country is under renewed alarm.
SOUTH AFRICAN MUTATION IS DIFFERENT
Over the weekend, travel bans were also imposed on South Africa, as it was believed that the UK variant was also found there. But South African health officials and scientists leading the country's virus strategy, the new variant.
Scientists have already studied several of the mutations occurring in B.1.1.7, and they are cause for concern. One mutation, called N501Y, makes the virus bind more tightly to human cells. This mutation has also appeared, independently, in a rapidly spreading variant in South Africa.
Another mutation, called D614G, makes the virus more transmissible. B.1.1.7 also contains a small deletion in the virus's genetic code, called 69-70del, and that deletion helps the new variant evade the body's immune system in some people.
These mutations, combined with the fact that B.1.1.7 acquired many changes simultaneously, suggest this new variant didn't arise by chance, but rather the mutations are giving it an advantage. They are helping it adapt to humans.
The new variant likely is more transmissible than previous versions of the virus.
When scientists first detected B.1.1.7 in late September, it rapidly took over parts of England, pushing out other forms of the virus. By early December, the new variant had pushed out other forms of the virus in London and become the dominant one.
This rapid rise suggests B.1.1.7 is more transmissible than other forms of the virus. "There's no hard evidence, but it seems most likely," says biochemist Jeremy Luban at the University of Massachusetts Medical School. "So if a person sneezes on a bus, the new variant is more likely to infect other people than the previous form of the virus."
To figure out transmissibility for certain, scientists have to bring B.1.1.7 into the lab and see if it's better at infecting cells and spreading between animals.
Even if the variant is more transmissible, it might not change the course of the pandemic. SARS-CoV-2 is already spreading quickly around the world. So a small increase might not make a big difference. It depends on how much better B.1.1.7 spreads.
In the end, how quickly the virus spreads depends on many factors, including people's behavior in a community. That is, whether they wear masks, physically distant, and avoid big gatherings. Those factors could be more important than whether B.1.1.7 arrives in a community, says virus expert Pei-Yong Shi at the University of Texas Medical Branch. "With all these human interventions, it's hard to predict the course of the pandemic.
So far, the new variant doesn't appear to cause more severe disease.
Scientists don't know for sure because the variant has just emerged, but so far, people who catch B.1.1.7 don't seem to be getting sicker.
Again, scientists don't know for sure if the vaccines will work as well with B.1.1.7. as they do with previous forms of the virus. They need to test out the new variant in laboratory experiments. But many scientists are optimistic.
When we get a vaccine, our immune systems make many antibodies against a big chunk of the virus, not just one small section that could change when the virus mutates. So even if the variant contains 17 mutations, some antibodies targeting the vaccine will likely still bind and neutralize the virus.
"So if you're in line for the COVID-19 vaccine, stay in line. Don't give up your spot. Take it," says microbiologist Andrew Pekosz of Johns Hopkins University. "You know, everything is still looking good from the vaccine standpoint."
The variant has likely spread to many countries around the world, including the United States.
The U.K. has been vigilant about looking for new variants and following them. Other countries, including the U.S., haven't been tracking variants as closely. So new variants, such as B.1.1.7, have likely gone undetected.