New mutations of the coronavirus keep appearing. Everyone has the question of whether they are more contagious or even more deadly. What research knows so far – and what not.
Since the beginning of the pandemic, the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus has already developed several potentially more contagious and dangerous variants. More than 4,000 different are known worldwide, but only a few are carefully observed and investigated in studies. An overview of the mutations most commonly described so far (as of March 25, 2021).
Important: Even if the “British variant” or the “Brazilian mutation” are used, their exact origin is not certain. The variants are named after where they were first found.
Great Britain: B.1.1.7
In December 2020, UK authorities reported a new variant of the SARS-CoV-2 virus spreading in the UK. The first sample in which variant B.1.1.7 was detected comes from September 2020. By the end of January 2021, it had reached more than 80 countries – including Germany.
The proportion of B.1.1.7 in Germany is now increasing rapidly and, according to the Robert Koch Institute (RKI), is over 70 percent. The variant is the main reason for the increasing number of new infections and the prolonged lockdown.
According to the RKI, the British variant is considered to be even easier to transfer from person to person than variants that have been circulating up to now. They also have a higher number of reproductions, so that their spread is more difficult to contain. Initial estimates said it caused 50 to 70 percent more infections compared to previous forms. In the meantime, according to studies based on a more robust database, it can be assumed that the increase will be around 35 to 50 percent.
According to current study data from the UK, B.1.1.7 also appears to be more deadly than the original virus. Scientists from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine named a risk of death that was at least 55 percent higher. Researchers at the University of Exeter found that the risk was around 64 percent higher. The RKI also confirmed that there was evidence of increased case mortality in all age groups.
A Danish study looked at hospital stays after a corona infection. According to this, B.1.1.7 increases the probability of having to be treated in the clinic by 64 percent.
Do the available vaccines work against the variant?
According to the RKI, there are no indications of a reduced effectiveness of the vaccines so far. All vaccines available in Germany protect against illness with the British variant, said the institute. However, in the case of a special form of the variant – B.1.1.7 E484K – it is assumed that it could make the virus less sensitive to neutralizing antibodies that have already been formed. The additional mutation E484K also occurs in variants B.1.351 from South Africa and P.1 from Brazil.
Laboratory examination (symbol picture): It is not uncommon for the coronavirus to mutate more and more. (Source: gevende / Getty Images)
South Africa: B.1.351
During investigations in South Africa in December 2020, a second virus variant was discovered, which from there quickly spread to other African countries, but also to Australia, Europe and South America. The mutation B.1.351 has now reached around 40 countries. The first cases in Germany were also known in January 2021.
Properties and effectiveness of the corona vaccines
According to the RKI, researchers assume that this variant is also more transferable. In addition, several studies suggested that there might be reduced protection from neutralizing antibodies against B.1.351 in those vaccinated or previously infected with the original SARS-CoV-2 variant.
This was particularly evident in the protective effect of the Astrazeneca vaccine. According to the British University of Oxford, which was involved in the development of the active ingredient, it has only a “minimal effect” against the variant. South Africa then stopped vaccinations with the Astrazeneca vaccine for the time being.
What is the difference between variant, mutation and mutant?
SARS-CoV-2 multiplies in the human body cells. The genome of the virus is also copied. If there are errors, changes in the genetic material occur. These changes are called Mutations. If the virus contains these mutations, there is a new one variant originated. Variant and Mutant can be used synonymously in this case. A variant can therefore also contain several mutations.
Another corona variant was detected for the first time in January 2021 in four people in Japan who had entered from Brazil. It bears the name P.1 – or B.1.1.28 – and is the dominant variant in the Brazilian state of Amazonas. From there it has spread to around 20 countries around the world. According to data from the RKI, the Brazilian mutation is still very rare in this country.
Properties and protection provided by the corona vaccines
There is relatively little data on P.1. Due to the genetic similarity to the South African variant B.1.351, an increased transferability is also assumed for this mutation, as the RKI reports. A possible reduced effectiveness of neutralizing antibodies in vaccinated and convalescent people is also up for discussion.
According to the Brazilian government, the corona variant discovered in the Amazon is three times more contagious than the original virus. Results of independent studies are still missing.
Corona pandemic: the number of cases is increasing rapidly in the Brazilian Amazon region. (Source: Agencia EFE / imago images)
Also in California it is about the formation of a new variant of SARS-CoV-2 come: CAL.20C could be responsible for the increase in the number of infections in the south of the US state, as researchers report. It was first detected in July 2020, but was then no longer visible until October.
The mutation has now made it to other US states and other countries such as Australia, Israel and Denmark. However, figures on the occurrence there are not yet available, reports the “Ärzteblatt”.
To what extent the variant is more infectious than other strains is still unclear. However, the rapid increase in new corona infections within the population in California points to this, according to experts. It is also not yet known how much the mutation affects the severity of a Covid 19 disease or whether it could reduce the vaccination effect.
New York/USA: B.1.526
The Corona variant with the name B.1.526 first appeared in samples from New York dated November 2020. By mid-February 2021, around one in four infections in the region could be traced back to this mutant. Research shows that this variant has already become widespread within New York. It has now spread to other countries such as Denmark.
The Corona variant from New York shows a change in the surface protein. The so-called spike protein forms the connection between the virus and the body cell. The mutation could have made the virus invulnerable to antibodies after vaccinations or infections, researchers fear. This characteristic can also be found in the mutants from Brazil and South Africa.
Another new one Coronavirus-Variant, which is referred to as B.1.5.25, is circulating in Nigeria according to the pan-African health organization Africa CDC. 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 2020.
Variant B.1.525 was first discovered in the UK in mid-December. It has now been found in at least 23 countries – including Germany, Denmark, Italy, Norway, Canada and the USA. The variant is particularly widespread in Nigeria.
According to a report in the “Pharmazeutische Zeitung”, variant B.1.525 has a number of mutations that are of concern to experts. The mutation E484K is also present in the South African variant B.1.351 and the Brazilian P.1. It could be responsible for their ability to at least partially escape the immune system. It is feared that the corona vaccines may be less effective against this mutation. It is still unclear whether this also applies to B.1.525.
Other virus variants very likely
Researchers expect that new variants of the coronavirus will continue to appear around the world. According to media reports, Finland recently reported the discovery of a mutation that was previously unknown. It was detected in a patient and is now being examined in the laboratory. How dangerous “Fin-796H” is is still open.