With vaccines making their way around the world, we are certainly getting the upper hand in the fight with the virus.
But the virus is not giving up either! New variants of the virus have been appearing in the U.K, South Africa, and Brazil. Why is the virus mutating and will the current vaccines still be effective? Let's find out.
What Are Mutations?
We had explained what a virus is and how the crown-like spikes give the coronavirus its name here.
As the COVID-19 virus infects an increasingly large number of people, little changes take place, known as mutations, in the virus’s genetic code. These are caused by mistakes made during the replication process, as the virus makes more copies of itself in the individual’s body.
Such modifications in the genetic material of the virus can then result in different versions of the original virus. While some mutations are so minor that they are virtually unnoticeable, others can have severe impacts.
Contrary to popular belief, though, mutations can also be beneficial, like when they increase genetic diversity in organisms! Unfortunately, mutations can also weaken an organism’s ability to survive, or in this case, strengthen the virus and makes it more difficult for our bodies’ antibodies, little virus-detecting receptors, to recognize them.
The New Variants
Officials announced that the U.K. variant, first discovered in September 2020, is 50% more contagious than the original COVID-19 strain. Since then, it has spread to 75 other countries, largely because it is able to replicate itself two times as fast as the original from Wuhan, China.
One particular mutation of the variant has also allowed it to bind more tightly to the cells in our body most susceptible to the virus, such as our nose and lung cells. In an effort to decrease the transmission of this variant, U.K. has instituted stronger lockdown restrictions as well as more travel bans.
The variant in South Africa has spread to over 32 countries in the continent. One of its most mutations allows it to avoid human antibodies and vaccines, hence making it more contagious. The South African government has extended curfew from 9 pm to 6 am and coronavirus restrictions are at level 3, where travel should be reconsidered.
Lastly, in January 2021, scientists have discovered two new Covid variants in Brazil, known as P1 and P2. Both variants raise the worrying concern that those who have previously contracted Covid-19 may or may not have immunity towards the new variants.
Will The Vaccines Work?
The effectiveness of the current vaccines will vary over the different variant strains. However, it is certain that the more the Covid-19 virus mutates, the less effective the vaccines will be towards them. Pfizer and Moderna reported recently that their vaccines are not as effective over the South African variant strain compared to the U.K. variants.
Fortunately, there is currently no evidence that the coronavirus variants are more infectious for children. According to the Hopkins Medicine website, while certain variants spread rapidly amongst populations, “most come and go” and “fizzle out” over time.
It is difficult to predict the direction the coronavirus will develop in. One thing is for sure—we must continue our Covid-19 safety precautions, such as wearing masks, practicing physical distancing, and good sanitation.
Sources: NPR, BBC, Al Jazeera, CDC, Hopkins Medicone, Gov.za