Strain of fear

There is an urgent need to make scientific research adjustments to combat the threat of the new Covid variant

AuthorPublished: 23rd Dec 2020  12:00 amUpdated: 22nd Dec 2020  7:03 pm

At a time when nations are bracing up for the coronavirus vaccine rollout to put an end to the prolonged pandemic, a new and rapidly spreading variant of the pathogen in England has triggered global panic, leading to a fresh wave of restrictions and travel bans. More alarmingly, the new variant, which now accounts for half of the Covid-19 cases reported in the last few weeks in Southeast England and capital London, has raised questions over the efficacy of the vaccines. The new variant, spreading nearly 70% faster than the earlier strains, had more mutations than seen in any variant before. While it is common for viruses to mutate and undergo changes in their genetic code, the mutation observed in the UK is linked to the change in the spike protein, which enables the entry of the virus into human cells. This change is potentially worrisome as it has made the virus capable of infecting people at a much higher rate. Since the start of the pandemic, scientists sequencing samples of the coronavirus have been tracking those changes to gain insight into how and where the pathogen has been spreading. There have already been some 4,000 different documented mutations in the Sars-Cov-2 virus that causes Covid-19 as it has spread around the globe. Until now, none have been a real cause for concern but the UK strain has raised an alarm. In London alone, 62% of infections reported in the second week of December were attributed to the new strain, compared with 28% three weeks earlier.

Several countries, including India, have banned travel to the UK. There are enough unknowns about the new strain to justify these measures to stop the spread. The genetic code of the new variant has caught the attention of the scientists because of how much it differed from the original version. It possesses a distinct genetic signature featuring an unusually large number of genetic changes, particularly in its spike protein, which are more likely to alter its function. However, vaccines train the immune system to attack several different parts of the virus so that even though part of the spike has mutated, the vaccines should still work. For now, it is not known if this variant is more dangerous than the earlier ones in terms of the severity of the disease or if it can elude the immunity built by vaccines. There is an urgent need to improve surveillance and make any clinical or scientific research adjustments that are needed to combat the new threat. As more and more people get vaccinated, researchers expect the virus to evolve mutations that could make it more resistant to vaccines in the future.

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