Just when we thought things were under control. Colin Dang wonders if we should be worried. Suddenly, there are as many different strains of the virus as vaccines to combat it. We now have at least three mutant versions of the original Covid-19 virus, known to scientists as SARS-CoV-2, matched up against the four antiviral jabs now available. So, what are they, and should we be concerned all over again?
Headlines using emotive words such as mutation are alarming, and should be viewed in context. All viruses mutate over time, duplicating themselves to spread and thrive, and there are at least 4,000 Covid variants in circulation. This is natural and expected. While most variants disappear, some persist. These include the so-called Brazil, South Africa, and ‘Kent variant’ as many call it. The B.1.1.7, ‘Kent’ strain is what most of us probably think as ‘the virus’ and is dominant in much of Britain. Sadly, it is also a successful export, already identified in more than 50 countries worldwide.
First detected in the US at the end of 2020, by January 2021, UK experts identified an increased risk of death compared to other variants and consider it to be up to 70% more transmissible or infectious.
This map from the Center of Disease Control (CDC) in the US illustrates just how prevalent it has become. The latest research by our domestic body, Public Health England (PHE) puts it between 30% and 50% more contagious. The same body published this summary to illustrate the distribution of the different variants.
The CDC identified another variant, called P1. The Brazil variant, a branch of the B.1.1.28 lineage, was first detected in travellers arriving from Manaus in Brazil. P1 has since been found in Japan and several European countries, including England and Scotland.
The P1 was designated "of concern" as it shares important mutations with the variant first identified in the South Africa, (B.1.351) strain which has made it to at least 20 other countries, including Austria, Norway and Japan, and our own.
Potentially, yes. The UK, South Africa and Brazil variants are demonstrably more infectious and have ‘evolved’ to be more resistant to vaccines, thanks to ‘tweaks’ in their make-up. The B.1.351 strain is causing concern as there are now several changes in the spike (S) protein, the part of the virus which attaches to human cells, and this affects the ability of vaccine-induced antibodies to bind to the cells.
The South Africa variant also has important changes in the spike protein. A key mutation – called E484K – could help the virus avoid antibodies from prior infection or a vaccine that would fight coronavirus. The Brazil variant also has three mutations in its spike protein receptor binding domain.
Although PHE talk about a 30% risk of increased mortality in this BMJ blog, research is inconclusive, there is currently no evidence the new strains cause more serious illness for those infected. But there is certainly no room for complacency. As with ‘Covid Mk1’, the risk is highest for the elderly, or those with significant underlying health conditions.
While current treatments were designed around earlier versions of coronavirus, scientists believe they should still work to some extent. Early results suggest the Pfizer vaccine protects against the new variants, although slightly less effectively.
While the Oxford AstraZenaca vaccine protects against the most serious effects of Covid, it offers only ‘limited’ protection against B.1.351. Moderna suggest their vaccine is still effective although, again, the immune response may not be as strong or prolonged. Two new coronavirus vaccines, from Novavax and Janssen, are set for approval and offer some protection.
As we have discussed, more variants are inevitable, and scientists remain vigilant. Experts can update vaccines in line with new discoveries and make updated jabs available in a matter of weeks, much as they do with flu. A new deal between the UK Government and vaccine manufacturer CureVac will evolve vaccines to meet future threats, and there is a pre-order of 50 million doses in place.
While scientists and epidemiologists track the passage of the new strains across the globe, many of the solutions lie closer to home. Essentially, protect yourself against ‘conventional’ Covid and you include the new strains.
Other government mandated measures such as washing hands, keeping distant from other people and wearing a face covering will still help prevent infections. Because the new variants appear to spread more easily it is important to be extra vigilant.
Coda are ready to help our customers maintain and improve their preventative measures. We offer a wide range of masks, antibacterial gels, and gloves, can minimise your exposure to potential hazards by delivering your prescription, and are always happy to advise you on any concerns you may have, Covid-related or otherwise.
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