We know that about the new coronavirus mutation
A new variant of the coronavirus is employing experts around the world. What do we know about the mutated virus?
A mutation of the corona virus is currently causing a stir around the world. The mutation was first reported in England. Prime Minister Boris Johnson then imposed the lockdown in the affected regions, including London. “If the virus changes its method of attack, we’ll have to change our method of defense,” said Johnson.
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But what exactly do we know about the new virus mutation? An overview:
Does the new variant transfer faster?
Like all viruses, the coronavirus is also a shape shifter. Viruses adapt to the environment and create genetic changes called mutations. Some of these are unimportant; others could give it an advantage.
It is believed that the new variant is transmitted faster than the old one – even by 70 percent, as Boris Johnson told the media. But these assumptions are based on modeling and have not been confirmed by laboratory experiments. It cannot be ruled out that some of this transferability data is related to human behavior, says Müge Çevik, an expert on infectious diseases at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland, told the New York Times. Clearly, more experimental data is needed.
What does the mutation mean in concrete terms?
Vaccinating millions of people can drive the virus to create mutations that help it evade or resist the immune response.
There are already small changes in the virus that have occurred independently of one another several times around the world – in Danish mink, in people in Great Britain and in people who had already been through coronavirus and developed antibodies in the plasma. This suggests that these mutations, which affect the virus’ susceptibility to antibodies, are helpful for the pathogen. The mutation is called the 69-70 deletion, which means that letters are missing from the genetic code.
Specifically, the genetic deletion changes the spike protein on the surface of the coronavirus. This is required for the infection of human cells. Viruses with this deletion were found in Thailand and Germany as early as the beginning of August.
Is the new variant more deadly?
There is as yet no evidence that this is the case. However, increased transmission would pose further problems for the health system in particular. If the new variant means that more people will be infected faster, this in turn would mean that more people will have to be treated in the hospital.
What does this mean for vaccination?
Various experts are concerned that the mutated virus is now resistant to the vaccines that are being developed. These concerns focus on two changes in the viral genetic code that may make it less susceptible to certain antibodies.
But many experts give the all-clear: it usually takes years – and not months – for a virus to change so dramatically. Dr. Jesse Bloom, evolutionary biologist at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle, told the Times:
It’s not like an on-off switch, says the doctor. One now has to monitor and characterize these mutations. And the human immune system is a formidable enemy.
The vaccination from Pfizer / Biontech and Moderna induces the vaccinated person to respond to the spike protein on the surface of the coronavirus. Every infected person produces a large, unique and complex repertoire of antibodies against this protein.
It is not so easy for the virus to find a genetic solution to all these different antibody specificities, says Kartik Chandran, a virologist at Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York, told the Times. “Thousands of large weapons point to the virus,” he says. It will be very difficult for the coronavirus to escape the body’s defenses – despite the many variations it can take.
Because: In order to escape immunity, a virus has to accumulate a number of mutations that enable the pathogen to undermine the effectiveness of the body’s own defenses. Some viruses, such as the influenza virus, accumulate these changes relatively quickly. But others, like the measles virus, barely collect changes.
But even the influenza virus takes five to seven years to collect enough mutations to bypass immune recognition entirely. According to a report by Dr. Bloom are also developing the common cold coronaviruses that have been around for a long time, a way to evade immune recognition – but that takes years.
And the virus doesn’t even need to adapt in this way, says Emma Hodcroft, a molecular epidemiologist at the University of Bern. Immunizing around 60 percent of the population within a year and lowering the number of cases while doing so could minimize the chance of a significant mutation in the virus, says Hodcroft. Still, scientists need to closely track the developing virus to identify mutations that could give it an advantage over vaccines.
The flu virus, for example, is constantly monitored so researchers can update the vaccine accordingly. That must now also be done with the corona virus, said Trevor Bedford, an evolutionary biologist at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle, told the Times. It could now be that the corona vaccine, like the flu vaccine, will be adjusted annually, and it will then be necessary to refresh the vaccination annually.
The good news is that the technology used in Pfizer / Biontech and Moderna vaccines is much easier to adapt and update than traditional vaccines. The new vaccines also generate a massive immune response so the coronavirus may need many mutations over the years before vaccines need to be tweaked, said Dr. Bedford.
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