Virus mutations and their interference with vaccines. Op-Ed by Ala Tocarciuc

We shouldn't panic, but we should be vigilant. If the virus continues to accumulate mutations in its spike protein, we risk the further falling of the effectiveness of vaccines and therefore, we will need new vaccines...

All viruses undergo mutations naturally over time and SARS-CoV-2 is no exception. Since the virus was first identified a year ago, thousands of mutations have occurred. The vast majority of mutations have little impact on the behavior of the virus and are simply on the role of carriers.

Viruses in reality are intelligent micro-entities, programmed to make as many copies of themselves as possible. From time to time, a virus catches its luck, moving in a way that helps it survive and reproduce. Creating new variants is a way to increase their chances of invading new hosts.

The British version

In mid-December 2020, the United Kingdom authorities reported to the WHO a new SARS-CoV-2 variant, also known as the British version. This variant contains 16 mutations and is different from the SARS-CoV-2 virus that circulated in the UK, when the new variant was detected. How and where this new variant appeared is not clear.

Preliminary epidemiological, modelling and clinical results suggest that the British version has an increased transmissibility. Preliminary analyses also indicate that there is a change in the severity of the disease, but there are no data on the occurrence of re-infection between various cases compared to other SARS-CoV-2 viruses circulating in the United Kingdom.

South African variant

Also, in December, national authorities from South Africa announced the detection of a new variant of SARS-CoV-2 that is spreading rapidly in three provinces in South Africa. This variant has 8 mutations, including some similar to the British variant, but is a different variant of the virus.

While the data have shown that the new variant has rapidly removed other lines circulating in South Africa, and preliminary studies suggest that the variant is associated with a higher viral load, which may suggest the potential for increased transmissibility, this, as well as other factors influencing transmissibility, are subject to further investigation.

Brazilian version

The Brazilian version contains 20 unique mutations, including  a new modification,   also  found  in the South African version. It seems, that the Brazilian variant first appeared in the city of Manaus, the state of Amazonas, in northern Brazil, which was particularly heavily affected by the pandemic.

The variant was also detected in four travelers, who flew from northern Brazil to Japan on January 2 this year. This version of the virus also carries some mutations found in the British and South African versions.

Although the exact consequences of these mutations are still being investigated by scientists, the Brazilian strain has been designated as the "Variance of Concern" by global health officials.

The emergence of the Brazilian variant raises concerns that the virus could develop an increased inclination to reinfect individuals, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. There is already available good information from laboratory studies about changes in amino acids, that are probably the most worrying.

Another Brazilian variant, called P2, was found in two people who caught COVID-19 a few months apart.

While new mutations have raised concerns that the virus could evolve in ways that allow it to evade some parts of the immune system, scientists said there is still no evidence to suggest it affects the effectiveness of vaccines.

Other mutations

Mutations have also been discovered in other countries, such as Denmark, the USA, China. Many countries where new variants have been discovered - including the UK, Denmark and South Africa - are renowned for regularly monitoring and sequencing the virus's genetic code and are therefore at the forefront of the discovery of mutations. It is assumed that there are also still undiscovered mutations, which can bring us many surprises in the future.

Preliminary conclusions

Most scientific publications on studies of new variants are still at the peer review stage. Preliminary publications outline some conclusions on the new variants.

The British version is more transmissible and causes an overall increase in mortality of 30%.

The South African variant is more transmissible, causes large-scale re-infection, is less found by  antibodies.

The Brazilian variant is more transmissible and causes large-scale re-infection, including in communities with reached herd immunity.

Vaccines currently approved provide full protection for the British version, but only at 50% for the South African version. The effectiveness of vaccines for the Brazilian variant is not yet known.

We shouldn't panic, but we should be vigilant. If the virus continues to accumulate mutations in its spike protein, we risk the further falling of the effectiveness of vaccines and we will need new vaccines.

The most important targets of antibodies happen to be the most variable parts of the spike protein. For these reasons we are involved non-stop in this evolutionary battle with the virus. 

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