With the race to get the COVID-19 vaccine in people’s arms, another challenge is facing scientists and governments around the world: COVID-19 variants. At the end of 2020, a variant of the novel Coronavirus was identified in the Kent region of the UK. The discovery caused alarm but little surprise among the scientific community and several subsequent variants have been identified. Here we look at these variants and what they mean for our battle against COVID-19.
COVID-19: What’s a variant?
There’s a lot of terminology being thrown around about COVID-19 variants. Simply put, a virus strain contains variants and variants contain mutations. So in this case, COVID-19 is a strain of the Coronavirus family, with SARS and MERS being other strains. Each strain will have a number of different variants and the variants will have a number of mutations. Mutations occur when the virus’s building blocks, that allow it to copy itself, are misprinted, in the same way mutations can happen to the human genome. Often, these mutations are “silent” and have no impact, but in other cases, they can change the behaviour of the virus and have dramatic consequences. These may include being more transmissible or being better at hiding from our antibodies.
COVID-19: Which variants are of concern?
There are dozens of variants and no doubt many more that haven’t been identified. However, there are three in particular that are causing concern.
The UK variant, also known as B.1.1.7, has been shown to have mutations in its spike protein, which makes it easier to enter our cells. This means it is more contagious, or transmissible, spreading more easily among populations, with data showing it may be as much as 70% more so than the original variant. Early evidence also suggests it is more deadly than the original variant by 30%.
The Brazil variant called P.1 and the South African variant called 501Y.V2 are the other two that have been flagged after they were first identified in those countries. All three of these variants share mutations which make containing the virus more challenging and may mean the vaccines are less effective.
COVID-19 variants: implications
In the immediate term, the implications of these variants are that COVID-19 will continue to spread when given the chance. That is why maintaining social distancing, wearing a mask, washing our hands and practising other such containment behaviours will help limit the transmission of the coronavirus.
In the medium term, lab tests of the Pfizer BioTech and Moderna vaccines suggest that the jabs might have lower efficacy against the South Africa variant. However, in most tests that have been conducted, the effectiveness of the new vaccines drops at most to 60%, which is similar to the standard flu jab. This gives cause for optimism and is why we should all get the vaccine as soon as we’re offered it.
COVID-19 variants: looking ahead
Mutations make it easier to predict how a virus will behave and this, coupled with the fact that vaccines can be tweaked in a lab, means that variations and mutations can be protected against and target several new variants at the same time.
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