By Ian Klane
January 21, 2021
In September of 2020, a new Covid-19 variant had been detected in the United Kingdom. With multiple Covid-19 variants circulating globally, as expected with any virus, one that has emerged out of the U.K. is being closely observed. Due to the unusual amount of mutations in the strain it has begun to spread more and more across the U.K. and even into the U.S. and Canada.
This new variant of the virus from the U.K. referred to as B.1.1.7, has been found to spread faster and easier than other variants, but there is no evidence that suggests the new strain is more deadly. This variant stood out to researchers due to the distinct amount of genetic changes, particularly to the spike protein that the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus uses to infect human cells. It has been studied that a mutation in the viral genome region encoding the spike protein, in theory, could result in Covid-19 spreading much more easily.
A study from The Centre for the Mathematical Modelling of Infectious Diseases in London shows that the new strain found in the U.K., which has now traveled to California as well as 33 other countries, is 56% more transmissible. With six new cases of the new strain being detected in California, it is worrisome as the state continues to ride its worst wave of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Emerging separately from the strain in the U.K., another variant of Covid-19 has been detected in South Africa. This variant, originally discovered in early October, shares some mutations with the variant from the U.K. There have as well even been signs of cases caused by this variant outside of South Africa. Similarly, there are signs of increased spreadability, and luckily still no evidence of increased risk of death or severity of illness have been found.
Scientists studying the new emerging variants have noticed that the mutations are changing the part of the virus that your immune system’s antibodies get trained to recognize after you’ve been infected or vaccinated. This discovery introduces problems regarding vaccines, questioning their effectiveness against the new variant as the change could cause people’s antibodies to be less effective at neutralizing the virus.
Although the variant that has emerged from South Africa is getting more attention in regards to its effect on vaccines, the mutations are said to not prove the vaccines to be completely hopeless. Ramón Lorenzo-Redondo, a molecular virologist at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine said that “With one mutation or even three mutations, it’s expected the antibodies will still recognize this variant, though they might not recognize it as well as other variants.”
Unlike the variant from South Africa, evidence indicates that the B.1.1.7 variant from the U.K. is not thought to have mutations that will greatly affect the strength of vaccines against it.