The academic weekly journal BMJ in the United Kingdom published an article that answers some questions that have arisen about the new variant of the coronavirus COVID-19, which has recently been discovered by scientists in that country.
As they explain, it was the Secretary of Health of England, Matt Hancock, who identified the new variant of Covid-19 and that it may be causing infections in the southeast of that nation, which has led to headlines about a “mutant covid ”.
One of the experts cited by the journal, details that the variant was named VUI-202012/01 (the first “Variant under investigation” in December 2020) and is defined by a set of 17 changes or mutations.
Furthermore, he explains that one of the most important changes is an N501Y mutation in the spike protein, which the virus uses to bind to the human ACE2 receptor.
“Changes in this part of the spike protein can, in theory, make the virus more infectious and spread more easily between people,” they said.
THEY FOUND THE VARIANT IN VIRUS POSITIVE PATIENTS
The variant was found after performing random genetic sequencing of positive samples from Covid-19 patients across the UK.
The consortium responsible for mutation testing is a partnership of the four UK public health agencies, as well as the Wellcome Sanger Institute and 12 more academic institutions.
Since its inception in April 2020, the consortium has sequenced 140,000 virus genomes of people infected with Covid-19. It uses the data to track outbreaks, identify virus variants and publish a weekly report (https://www.cogconsortium.uk/data/) ”, they explain.
BUT HOW COMMON IS A VARIANT?
What they explain in the magazine is that, as of December 13, 1108 cases with this variant had been identified in the United Kingdom by almost 60 different local authorities, although the real number must be much higher.
So these cases occurred predominantly in the south east of England, but there have been recent reports from further afield, including Wales and Scotland.
The journal BMJ, citing Nick Loman, professor of microbial genomics and bioinformation at the University of Birmingham, mentioned in a Science Media Center briefing on December 15 that the variant was first detected in late September and now represents the 20% of viruses sequenced in Norfolk, 10% in Essex and 3% in Suffolk.
“There is no data to suggest that it was imported from abroad, so it is likely that it evolved in the UK,” he said.
The Health Secretary told the House of Commons on December 14 that initial analysis showed that the new variant “may be associated” with the recent increase in cases in south-east England.
However, this is not the same as saying that it is causing the increase in infections, he warned.
In that sense, Loman, assured that this variant “is strongly associated with where we are seeing increasing rates of Covid-19. It is a correlation, but we cannot say that it is causality. But there is surprising growth in this variant, which is why we are concerned and it needs urgent monitoring and investigation.
MUTATIONS ARISE NATURALLY
The magazine details that SARS-CoV-2 is an RNA virus and mutations arise naturally as it replicates.
“Many thousands of mutations have already emerged, but only a very small minority are likely to be significant and change the virus appreciably. COG-UK says there are currently around 4,000 mutations in the spike protein, ”the article states.
Sharon Peacock, director of COG-UK, detailed in the Science Media Center briefing that mutations are expected and are a natural part of the evolution of the coronavirus, adding that thousands of mutations have already emerged and the vast majority have no effect on virus, but can be useful as a barcode to monitor outbreaks.
At the same time, he stressed that it is not known if the variant is more dangerous, but that mutations make the viruses more infectious and not necessarily more harmful.
“Several variants have already been detected in the UK. For example, the D614G variant is believed to have increased the transmission capacity of the virus and is now the most common type circulating in the UK, although it does not appear to lead to a more serious disease, ”they explain.
IT IS UNLIKELY THAT A SINGLE CHANGE WILL MAKE THE VACCINE LESS EFFECTIVE
Currently, the Public Health England laboratory in Porton Down is working to find any evidence that the new variant increases or decreases the severity of the disease.
In that regard, they quote Susan Hopkins, joint medical advisor to NHS Test and Trace and Public Health England who said: “There is currently no evidence that this strain causes more serious disease, although it is being detected across a wide geography, especially where more cases are detected ”.
The journal reports that the variant has mutations in the peak protein targeted by the three major vaccines and these produce antibodies against many regions of it, so it is unlikely that a single change will make the vaccine less effective.
“Over time, as more mutations occur, the vaccine may need to be modified. This happens with seasonal flu, which mutates every year, and the vaccine is adjusted accordingly. The SARS-CoV-2 virus does not mutate as rapidly as the influenza virus, and the vaccines that have so far proven effective in trials are types that can be easily modified if necessary, ”they reiterated.
Peacock said: “With this variant there is no evidence that it prevents vaccination or a human immune response. But if there is a case of vaccine failure or reinfection, that case should be treated as a high priority for genetic sequencing. “