New mutations of the coronavirus have already been discovered in Great Britain, South Africa and Brazil. The British variant has now been detected in around 100 other countries and is causing extremely high numbers of infections in Portugal, among others. According to Health Minister Spahn, over 20 percent of all new infections with the corona virus in Germany are also due to the new variant. Politics and science are attentive to alarmed – even the tightened measures in Germany until the beginning of March were partly justified by the new variants. But how dangerous are they anyway? The re is now more knowledge about this.
Which mutations are you talking about?
It has long been known that viruses are constantly mutating. Sars-CoV-2 is no exception, but – compared to flu viruses, for example – it is rather slow in developing viable variants. Here, too, variants of the corona virus strain that was described at the beginning of the pandemic are now known worldwide. Most of them do not have a decisive influence on the spread of the virus.
This changes when one or more mutations create a virus type that gives the pathogen selective advantages: for example, by making it more contagious, i.e. more quickly transmitted, or by developing the ability to evade the immune system that is fighting it. One then speaks of a questionable variant, a “Variant of Concern”, or VOC for short. In this context, several variants of Sars-CoV-2 are currently the focus of attention:
The British government initially announced that the mutation was up to 70 percent more contagious than the previously prevalent variant – a number that the virologist Drosten classified as an “estimate” on Deutschlandfunk.
The virologist Kekule spoke in the DLF of an approximately 20 to 30 percent higher infectiousness, according to the figures from England. According to initial findings, people who have been infected with B.1.1.7 seem to produce more virus – which could make infection easier. But there are still no reliable studies on this, as the science journalist Volkart Wildermuth emphasized at the DLF.
According to current knowledge, the higher transferability is essentially based on a mutation of the so-called spike protein, which docks on certain cells in the human body. According to the World Health Organization WHO, this variant has been detected in at least 100 countries worldwide, including Germany (as of February 17). British Prime Minister Johnson caused a stir when he said that B.1.1.7 was also likely to be associated with a higher death rate.
This statement has now been supported by the scientific advisory committee “Nervtag”. In an evaluation of a dozen observational and model studies in Great Britain, it has been shown that variant B.1.1.7 could be associated with an increased risk of a severe and fatal course. Two other case studies also report on increased mortality: one is featured in the British Medical Journal, the other in the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. However, it was not possible to provide reliable information.
The investigations still relate to too few patients for a statistically reliable statement about the course of infections with different virus variants. Peter Horby, professor of emerging infectious diseases at Oxford University and chairman of “Nervtag”, however, emphasized that previous analyzes had shown that the death rate was higher for people with the B.1.1.7 variant than for people with others Virus variants. However, one needs the results of further studies to get a clear picture.
The “European Center for Disease Prevention and Control”, ECDC, has it under the designation 501.V2. This variant has also been detected in other countries, including Germany, Austria, Great Britain and France. In South Africa, this virus variant is now responsible for most of the infections. According to the ECDC, there is so far no evidence that it causes a more severe course of the disease.
Another mutation was discovered in Brazil. As the health authority announced, the variant is not identical to the British or South African mutation. Scientists believe the Brazilian variant of the virus is more contagious than the original form – similar to the mutations discovered in the UK and South Africa. In addition, people in Manaus, Brazil, who have already had a corona infection, seem to be infected with the new variant. This increases the fear that the vaccines developed to date do not provide adequate protection against this mutation.
The re is also great concern that the first cases of the British virus variant have been discovered in Great Britain, which also contain a genetic modification of the South African virus line. This could make these viruses even more contagious and also promote multiple infections because the neutralizing antibodies no longer bind to the virus as stably.
What does this mean for the development of the pandemic?
Scientists see a risk in the presumably higher transferability of the virus variants. If more people become infected, this could lead to a higher number of hospital stays and deaths, for example because more members of risk groups become infected.
The researchers also warn against overloading the health systems in the respective countries.
The federal and state governments justify the recently decided tightening of the corona protective measures, among other things, with reference to the mutations in the virus, which are viewed “with concern”. In contrast, the virologist Kekule pointed out that the existing measures would also help against a more contagious variant – if they were implemented consistently.
The greater risk of infection is probably due to the fact that there are more infected people without symptoms of the disease and the infected people excrete the virus longer. Kekule emphasized that mask and distance also protect against these variants.
In the UK there is evidence that the new mutant displaces the known virus variant. In Portugal, too, she is now responsible for a large part of the infections. In Germany, the proportion of the variant in new infections is growing sharply. According to Health Minister Spahn, over 20 percent of all new infections with the corona virus are now due to the new variant. However, the mutation can only be detected if the virus’s gene pool is completely analyzed. In Germany this is not the case as standard, but is now increasingly being sought.
Do we need new vaccines?
The corona vaccine from Biontech and Pfizer apparently also protects against the variants of the coronavirus discovered in the UK and South Africa. This emerges from a laboratory study by the manufacturer Pfizer and the University of Texas, which was published on servers for researchers on the Internet. A review of the results by independent scientists is still pending.
DLF science journalist Arndt Reuning wrote in a comment that the vaccines would now lose their effectiveness. It could be that some antibodies bind less well to the mutated sites of the virus. But through a vaccination, the immune system learns to recognize the pathogen in different parts. And beyond the antibodies, the immune system also reacts to intruders with white blood cells. It is precisely this arm of the immune system that is less likely to be affected by mutation-related changes in a pathogen.
In contrast, more pessimistic tones come from Great Britain. Transport Minister Shapps spoke of a “very great concern among scientists” that vaccines might not respond to the South African variant of the virus in the same way as the original form – as well as the mutant that is common in Brazil.
Biontech is currently carrying out tests with the new variant and its vaccine. Biontech founder Sahin said at a press conference, “that the immune reaction caused by this vaccine can also deal with the new virus”. In addition, mRNA vaccines such as those from Biontech or Moderna can be adapted to mutations. Such an adapted vaccine would then have to be approved again.
A study by the Universities of Witwatersrand and Oxford came to a different conclusion on the effectiveness of the AstraZeneca vaccine in the South African variant: the agent apparently offers only limited protection.
The refore vaccinations in South Africa with the active ingredient were interrupted. However, the WHO warned against prematurely giving up AstraZeneca’s vaccine.
Further articles on the coronavirus
We have created a news blog. In view of the large amount of information, this provides an overview of the most important current developments.
+ Extended lockdown: what rules apply and what opening perspectives are there? (As of February 17th)
+ New rules: How the federal states implement the lockdown resolutions (as of February 17)
+ Border controls: what to watch out for (as of February 15)
Test and protection
The vaccination ordinance: who will be vaccinated first, who later? (As of: February 17th)
+ Dates: how, when and where can I get vaccinated? (Status: February 12th)
+ Vaccinations: What is known about the side effects of the corona vaccine (as of February 16)
+ Astrazeneca vaccine: reports of side effects and acceptance problems – experts disagree (17.02.)
+ Protection: So it is about the development of vaccines against the coronavirus (as of February 15)
+ Change of strategy: are rapid tests the breakthrough in fighting pandemics? (As of February 16)
+ Sick people: New insights into the search for drugs (as of January 30)
Treatment: How does an antibody drug work and when is it useful? (As of January 25th)
+ Economy: How the world of work deals with the number of infections (as of February 16)
Contagion and Transmission
+ Virus variants: how dangerous are the new mutations of the coronavirus? (As of: February 17th)
+ Opponents of infection protection measures: What AfD and lateral thinkers have to do with the spread of the coronavirus in Germany (as of 02/09)
+ Transfer: What role do aerosols play (as of January 22)
+ Excess mortality: how deadly is the coronavirus really? (Status: 05.02.)
+ Travel warning:
The current list of risk areas (as of February 17th)
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