Coronavirus mutation: Here's what we know about the new strain
As the vaccine for COVID-19 had just started rolling out, the worrisome news of the coronavirus mutating has started circulating. Nearly a year into the pandemic, which has sickened 76.8 million and killed 1.7 million, the United Kingdom has reported a mutated strain of the coronavirus which is up to "70% more transmissible." Here's what we know about this new strain.
The UK variant of the virus has about 20 mutations, including many that impact how the virus infects human cells. Dr. Muge Cevik—an infectious disease expert at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland and a scientific advisor to the British government—told The New York Times that these mutations might make the virus more contagious. Scientists had previously thought that the virus was stable.
Given the rise in infections concerning the new variant in London and surrounding areas, UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson has imposed the most stringent lockdown since March. "When the virus changes its method of attack, we must change our method of defense," he said. Thousands scrambled to leave London as European countries started sealing their borders for travelers from the UK.
UK officials have said that the virus is as much as 70% more transmissible. However, Dr. Cevik told NYT that this might just be due to human behavior. A year into the pandemic, people have become laxer about precautions. Dr. Cevik also said that the officials' claim of the new strain being more transmissible is based on modeling, not lab experiments.
In South Africa, where a similar version of the virus has emerged, scientists said that the apparent higher transmissibility might be due to human behavior. "Overall, I think we need to have a little bit more experimental data," Dr. Cevik said.
While the scientific community should definitely keep an eye on the virus mutating, experts say, it could take years before the virus can evolve enough to leave the current vaccines powerless. For instance, even influenza—which evolves quickly—takes up to five-seven years to mutate enough to evade the immune system, Jesse Bloom, an evolutionary biologist at Seattle's Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, told NYT.
Dr. Bloom said, "No one should worry that there is going to be a single catastrophic mutation that suddenly renders all immunity and antibodies useless." "It is going to be a process that occurs over the time scale of multiple years and requires the accumulation of multiple viral mutations," he added. "It's not going to be like an on-off switch."
The Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines notably induce an immune response to the spike protein present on the virus surface. However, each infected person produces a large, complex collection of antibodies to this protein. Kartik Chandran, a virologist at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York, said, "The fact is that you have a thousand big guns pointed at the virus."
Dr. Chandran added, "No matter how the virus twists and weaves, it's not that easy to find a genetic solution that can really combat all these different antibody specificities, not to mention the other arms of the immune response."
Emma Hodcroft—a molecular epidemiologist at Switzerland's University of Bern—said, "It would be a little surprising to me if we were seeing active selection for immune escape." "In a population that's still mostly naïve, the virus just doesn't need to do that yet," she added, "It's something we want to watch out for in the long term, especially as we start getting more people vaccinated."