New threats posed by new and emerging Covid-19 variants

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Josie Graves, Journalist

It goes without saying that the Covid-19 pandemic has thrown our lives into unrecognizable chaos. However, with the continued escalation of the severity of our situation, the current disarray may only be an inkling of what is to come. With three new variants of the virus beginning to spread worldwide, concern of what these mutations will spell out for the well being of humanity are rising proportionally with the case numbers. 

According to John Hopkins, viruses create new variations when a genetic mutation occurs. This is incredibly common especially with viruses that are found in RNA proteins, like Covid-19. Robert Bullinger, a professor of infectious diseases and medicine, who holds a PhD in the field, explained that “all RNA viruses mutate over time, some more than others. For example, flu viruses change often, which is why doctors recommend that you get a new flu vaccine every year.” 

So, it was expected that the strain that causes the coronavirus would gradually show mutations as we continued through the course of the pandemic. However, even with these prospects, it is still unclear how the new strains will differ from the original in terms of symptoms, fatality rates, and vulnerability to vaccines.

U.K. Variant 

Each new strain of SARS-CoV-2, the strain that causes Covid-19, has in itself a variety of mutations. This variant, called B.1.1.7, was originally detected in the UK but has quickly spread to many other countries, including the United States, according to the CDC. In early September of 2020, the first case of this new strain was reported in England and since has accounted for 60% of the total coronavirus cases in December. As of now, scientists are investigating a possible link to the UK variant and an increased risk of death when infected by it. However, it is still unclear if this is true and further research is being conducted to prove or disprove this hypothesis. 

Along with this, scientists have put an emphasis on researching how the B.1.1.7 strain is affected by the current Moderna and Pfizer vaccine, if at all. And though it has been seen that this mutation occurs on the spike-like protein that acts as a casing for the virus, the same that allows it to stick easily to human cells, preliminary studies have found the two vaccines to be efficient in providing protection against the U.K variant. 

South African Variant 

This variant, B.1.351, was detected in early October of 2020, and has also spread to regions outside of its place of origin, including the United States where it was first detected in early January of this year. There are many similar traits that this virus has compared to the U.K variant. For one it has multiple mutations on the spike protein that allows it to spread quicker, much like B.1.1.7. However, early research has not linked this virus with an increased severity of the disease and, it has shown the vaccines to possibly be effective in fighting it. Scientists still have much more to consider before they can prove this to be fact. 

Brazilian Variant 

P.1 was first detected in tourists in Brazil, but similar to the other current strains, is more contagious than the first variant found in China. It has also been confirmed to be in the United States as of late January, 2021. However, unlike B.1.1.7 and B.1.351, it has 17 mutations completely unique to the strain, whereas those from the U.K and Brazil share certain characteristics. This strain is causing some concern as the mutations lead to it being less recognizable by current antibodies in our system, developed from previously being affected by Covid-19. Because of this, it is less likely that the virus will be neutralized should it reenter our body. 

It has also been uncovered in early investigations, that this virus may be far more transmissible than the original, as it has accounted for a spike in cases in the region from which it originated.

Little is known about how effective the vaccines will be against this variant. 

Even with the limited information we have on these new strains of the virus that cause covid-19, we know the ways in which we can keep ourselves and others safe. As mutations that cause a variety of health implications that are different from those of the original virus continue to emerge, it is far more important to follow the CDC’s guidelines. It is even more vital that we do our part, even with vaccines the spread will only be slowed, not stopped. Dr. Badley, an infectious disease physician who is also head of the Covid-19 task force at the Mayo Clinic, commented on the situation regarding the emerging variants. “I think the take-home message is: Today there are a lot of unknowns. Our treatments should still work against it. Our vaccine should still work against it. But it appears to spread more rapidly.”