How to understand mutant COVID variants
Dear friends and colleagues,
New Year 2021. While it seems like all around us, chaos and suffering continued like the spillover of 2020, internally (at least for me) I feel stronger. I am able to deal with fear and uncertainty better than I did before, even though nothing has changed.
But still – the war has not been won. We are still in the midst of it and we must stay strong. As you probably heard, there have been several COVID strains circulating. Let’s do a brief intro of each.
What we know so far about each strain:
Last Sunday, Jan 10, a new mutant was announced, detected in passengers who arrived in Tokyo from Brazil
Currently, it is difficult to judge its transmissibility and risk of developing serious symptoms
Unclear whether it is more infectious like the UK and South African variant
Variant called virus B117
Reported by UK health officials to World Health Organization on Dec 14
Early analysis suggested it may be up to 70% more transmissible
Currently no evidence that it causes any difference to course of disease
Graph illustrates increasing number of cases of new strain of COVID-19 in the UK (in orange)
“South Africa variant”
Variant named “501Y.V2” because of the N501Y mutation found in the spike protein
Announced on Dec 18
Mutation spread rapidly in Eastern Cape, Western Cape, and KwaZulu-Natal and now has become the country’s dominant strain of the coronavirus.
“Denmark mink variant”
Emerged in Denmark last summer linked to the country’s mink farming sectors
Since June, 214 human cases of COVID has been associated with the farmed minks which transmitted the variant to humans
Denmark took drastic action, killing 17 million minks after the mutation was found
Anybody else lie wide awake in bed thinking about zombie minks? No, just me?
But seriously – can you imagine this happening in the United States? All the PETA protests…
Will the vaccine work against new strains?
Honestly, no one knows for sure.
However, one key advantage of the mRNA technology is that it is like a “build your own lego” vaccine. If we have the viral sequence, it would allow the company to adapt the vaccine relatively quickly.
Distribution and administration however is a different issue.
The CEO of BioNtech, Dr. Ugur Sahin mentioned,
“We are confident that based on the mechanism of our vaccine, even though there are mutations, we believe that the immune response which is induced by our vaccine could also deal with (a) mutated virus,”
“Last week, we reported another mutation which is present in the U.K. variant and also in the South African variant and this mutation is considered to be important because it could change structurally the protein. But it appears the immune response against our vaccine also neutralizes this mutation.”
The current Pfizer-BioNTech’s study shows vaccine’s effectiveness to neutralize the N501Y mutation from the UK and South Africa variants. However, the report has not been yet peer-reviewed. Note that it only looked at one mutation.
Again, in times of uncertainty, let’s control what we can control: stay home, wear a mask, 6 feet distance, wash your hands and face.
And stay informed.