All the key virus mutations that we all know
Health care workers enter visitor information on laptops before administering doses of Pfizer-BioNTech Covid-19 vaccine on Sunday, January 10, 2021 at the Mother and Child Hospital in Belgrade, Serbia.
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Viruses are constantly mutating, so it is not surprising that the coronavirus that emerged in China in late 2019 has gone through several minor variations. However, it has also undergone several major mutations, and it is likely that other significant variations will occur.
More recently, strains have emerged in South Africa and the UK raising concerns about the effectiveness of coronavirus vaccines. There is also a suspicion of a new strain in the US. The White House Coronavirus Task Force warns early in the new year that there may be a new, more transmissible variant of the virus that has emerged in the United States and is driving the spread of the document received from NBC News.
And on Sunday, the Japanese National Institute of Infectious Diseases announced that it had discovered a new variant of the corona virus in four travelers arriving from Brazil.
Essentially, scientists are concerned about major changes in what is known as the virus’s spike protein. This contains the receptor binding domain and is used by the virus to enter cells in the body.
Not only can mutations make the virus more transmissible, but they can also make vaccines less effective and need to be updated.
The ‘UK variant’
A new variant was reported by UK health authorities to the World Health Organization on December 14th and is now officially known as “VOC 202012/01” (which stands for “Variant of Concern, Year 2020, Month 12, Variant 01”).
The variant was first detected in September in a patient in Kent in south-east England. It then quickly spread to London. With infections soaring in both regions, early analysis suggests they may be up to 70% more transmissible than the old variant that was circulating in the country.
News of the new variant prompted many countries to ban flights from the UK to keep the new burden out and prompted the country’s government to scrap a proposed relaxation of social restrictions over Christmas. Nonetheless, the mutation caused a huge surge in infections, with the number of new daily cases exceeding 50,000 since December 28th.
The WHO notes that “how and where SARS-CoV-2 VOC 202012/01 originated is unclear,” although scientists are investigating whether the mutation occurred in patients with weaker immune systems who had long-term coronavirus infections, what Gives the virus the opportunity and time to evolve so that it can spread faster.
The “South Africa variant”
Shortly after the news from Great Britain, on December 18, the South African authorities announced evidence of a mutation that was rapidly spreading in the Eastern Cape, Western Cape and KwaZulu-Natal. It has now become the dominant tribe in the country for the coronavirus.
South Africa named the variant “501Y.V2” because of the N501Y mutation found in the spike protein. This mutation was also found in the new British strain, among other things, and as such is considered to be similarly transferable.
The South African strain contains other mutations, and these have raised some concerns that it might prove more resistant to coronavirus vaccines. However, most scientists expect the vaccines to work despite the mutation, and the vaccines are regularly adapted for new strains of the virus like the flu.
The ‘Denmark mink variant’
Another coronavirus variant that emerged in Denmark last summer was linked to the country’s large mink cultivation. As of June, 214 human cases of Covid-19 with variants related to farmed mink have been identified in Denmark. Twelve of these cases had a unique variant, which was reported to WHO on November 5th.
The new strain was found in Northern Jutland, Denmark, and was linked to infections in farmed minks that were subsequently transmitted to humans.
Mink are seen on a farm in Gjol, Northern Denmark on October 9, 2020.
HENNING BAGGER | Ritzau Scanpix | AFP via Getty Images
“The variant, called the ‘Cluster 5’ variant by the Danish authorities, had a combination of mutations that were not previously observed,” the WHO stated. They added concerns that they “could lead to decreased virus neutralization in humans, which could potentially reduce the level and duration of immune protection after natural infection or vaccination”.
Studies are currently being conducted to evaluate the effectiveness of treatment in humans with this variant. Fortunately, according to the European Center for Disease Prevention and Control and WHO, it appears to be non-communicable. Denmark took drastic measures and killed 17 million minks.
Early mutation in China
WHO notes that a variant of the coronavirus appeared early in the pandemic (in fact, before it was even declared a global pandemic in March 2020) and noted that a new strain with a mutation called “D614G” appeared in late January or January Beginning of February 2020.
After a few months, this became the dominant strain of the virus we know today, the WHO said. “Over a period of several months, the D614G mutation replaced the original SARS-CoV-2 strain identified in China and became the dominant form of the globally circulating virus by June 2020.”
Studies on human respiratory cells and animal models showed that the newer strain showed increased infectivity and transmission compared to the original virus strain. However, the new variant was not believed to “cause a more serious illness or change the effectiveness of existing laboratory diagnostics, therapeutics, vaccines or public health preventive measures”.
No blame game
While variants are sometimes referred to as “UK strain” or “Denmark mutation”, experts say it is important to note that the origin of these viruses is ultimately difficult to determine and countries should not be “held responsible” for different mutations.
Similarly, US President Donald Trump has been criticized for calling Covid-19 “the China virus” – the coronavirus may have appeared in China, but we still don’t know where it came from, and a team from WHO Experts will travel to China this week to investigate. At present, scientists mainly believe that the virus was transmitted to humans from some species, possibly bats.
Many countries where variants have been discovered – including the UK, Denmark and South Africa – are known for their regular monitoring and sequencing of the virus’s genetic code, so they are at the forefront of mutation discovery. WHO and other public agencies such as the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the EU’s ECDC are kept informed by scientists around the world as important variants emerge.