The -SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus has been rampant worldwide for many months. But now there is no longer just “the virus”, but different variants of the pathogen. Currently, one mutation discovered in Great Britain and one in South Africa are making the headlines. What we know so far about the new forms – and what not.
Where have new virus variants emerged so far?
The -virus mutation, which was first discovered in Great Britain and belongs to the so-called virus line B1.1.7, is currently spreading mainly in Europe. It was first reported in mid-December in London and south-east England. As a result, the World Health Organization (WHO) informed.
According to the WHO, mutations of the coronavirus have also been found in the following countries:
The -chief virologist at the Berlin Charité, Christian Drosten, emphasized at the end of December that the mutations had indeed been detected in these countries, but had not yet produced a rapid development as in Great Britain. In rare cases, the modified virus appeared there as early as the end of September.
Drosten said on Twitter: “ New data on the B.1.1.7 mutant (published today). Unfortunately, that doesn’t look good. It is positive that cases with the mutant have only increased in areas where the overall incidence was high or rising. Contact reduction also works against the spread of the mutant. ”
According to a report by “ Welt”, the corona mutation from Great Britain has been rampant in Belgium for months. According to the Belgian virologist Marc Van Ranst from the University of Leuven, four cases of the mutated virus were discovered in 2,000 samples in the laboratory of his university in the past few months. In the meantime, however, the virus variant is likely to have spread much more, according to the report.
The -fact that the EU authorities only held a crisis meeting after the cases in Great Britain became known could be due to the impressive words of the British government. Health Secretary Matt Hancock said the new variant of the coronavirus was “out of control”.
It is not entirely clear how widespread variant B.1.1.7 is already in this country. One reason for this: In Germany, the virus genome is deciphered significantly less often in people infected with corona than in Great Britain, for example. But this is important in order to discover new variants early on.
A second mutation was recently discovered in research in South Africa. According to the government, it is named 501.V2. This variant has now also been detected in other countries, including Great Britain and France.
The -variations in England and South Africa are similar, but probably developed independently of each other,” said the German scientist Wolfgang Preiser, head of the Department of Medical Virology at the University of Stellenbosch in South Africa, the “ Welt”.
The -European health authority ECDC also announced in a risk assessment that the variant in South Africa had “no close evolutionary relationship” to that in Great Britain. However, it shows that the emergence of successful variants with similar properties may not be rare.
Another new coronavirus variant. According to the pan-African health organization Africa CDC, it is in Nigeria. It looks like it evolved separately from the virus mutants in South Africa and the UK, Africa CDC head John Nkengasong said in late December.
However, there is still little data on it and further research is being carried out.
The -variant was discovered in two patient samples taken in August and October, according to a report from researchers in Nigeria. How widespread the new variant is in Nigeria or in other countries is not yet known.
What is the difference to the previous mutations?
The -genetic makeup of the coronavirus is constantly changing, which in itself is not unusual.
The -new corona mutation differs from the already known form by a change in the so-called spike protein of SARS-CoV-2. With this spike-like structure, the virus attaches itself to human cells and then penetrates them.
The -genetic changes caused by mutations can also change the properties of the virus and, for example, make it easier for it to infect human cells or to better escape the attacks of the immune system. It is still unclear whether this applies to the newly discovered virus variants in Great Britain and South Africa.
Prime minister Boris Johnson had recently said in the British Parliament that the new Corona mutation was up to 70 percent more contagious than the variant previously in circulation. That would mean that the new form could ensure that the virus spreads much faster.
With regard to Johnson’s statement, Christian Drosten expressed considerable doubts: “ This number was simply called that.” Politicians would name such numbers, the media would record them. “ Suddenly there is such a value in the room – 70 percent – and nobody even knows what it means.” It cannot yet be assessed whether the new virus variant is actually more contagious. Information from Great Britain would have to be awaited for this.
The -British government is now warning of a great risk from the coronavirus variant that has appeared in South Africa. This mutation is a “very significant problem” and an even bigger problem than the highly infectious British variant, Health Secretary Matt Hancock said on BBC radio. He was “incredibly worried” about it. Therefore, Britain has taken the measures to restrict flights from South Africa.
Do corona vaccines also work against mutations?
The -immune responses that the vaccine elicits are directed against several characteristics of the virus, so individual mutations should not have dramatic effects. But a sure answer is only expected in the coming weeks.
Theoretically, however, mutations can also affect the effectiveness of vaccines – because they target precisely the spike protein. If its structure changes, that could immune system
The -idea is to be blind to the pathogen even after a vaccination. However, the vaccine currently in use generates immune reactions against the entire spike protein, explains Prof. Richard Neher from the Biozentrum of the University of Basel. “ Even if there is a mutation, it won’t prevent the immune system from recognizing it.” In other words: individual mutations are not enough to escape the complex immune system.
What do the mutations mean for the course of the pandemic?
The -consequences of this could be: more infected people, more sick people, a higher burden on the health system, more deaths.
According to Virologist Drosten, it still has to be clarified whether the mutated virus has triggered a new wave of infections in Great Britain or whether it was rather washed up in the course of the general virus spread.
Researchers emphasize that the new variant could make it more difficult to contain the pandemic. Based on the available data, it seems likely that the mutation B.1.1.7, which was first discovered in Great Britain, will soon also be the dominant variant in Germany, says virologist Jörg Timm from the Düsseldorf University Hospital.
“I believe that a reduction in the number of cases is fundamentally necessary for sustainable infection control. If the data on the increased infectiousness of the new variant are correct – and I assume that – then the task will certainly be more difficult.”