It took just one strain to plunge the entire planet into havoc. The sci-fi tropes of breaking news announcements, quarantines, and supermarket savages have become the norm. With the (surprisingly) successful distribution of vaccines across the country, we can finally re-enter this post-apocalyptic world – it’s like the final few minutes of a sci-fi movie where the people emerge out of the rubble and celebrate, the camera pans out and a feel-good tune plays as the closing credits roll – or is it? With rising reports of mutations, it is possible that we have not yet reached the finale.
A new study has found seven variants of SARS-COV2 in the US, these mutations could possibly make it easier for the virus to latch onto and enter human cells. As a peer-review of this investigation gets underway, let’s go over the most common variants (so far) and see how they compare to the original.
1. UK variant (B.1.1.7)
First up is our very own UK variant, also referred to as the Kent variant or B.1.1.7. – catchy. I don’t know what it is about virus strains, but the names do invoke a slight sense of patriotism, particularly as it is remarkably better (at being a virus) than the original. The UK variant is 35-45% more transmissible, with cases doubling every 10 days! A study reports that the UK variant “will likely become the dominant variant in many US states by March 2021, leading to further surges of COVID-19”. This variant is also thought to be 30-70% deadlier than the original coronavirus. As of 9th March, the total cases in the UK caused by this variant stand at 108,337.
A further mutated version of this variant (named B.1.1.7 with E484K) was also found in Bristol earlier this month. The E484K mutation, also found in the South African variant, allows the virus to evade the body’s immune defence system, therefore making reinfection more likely. Unlike the original UK variant, this further mutated version is less affected by vaccines, with the Novavax and Johnson & Johnson vaccines having a 60% efficacy, where usually Novavax is 89% effective and Johnson & Johnson is 66%.
2. South African variant (B.1.351)
This relatively new variant was identified in October 2020 and shares many similarities with the UK variant; the British, South African, and Brazilian variants all have mutations in the spike protein. Though the South African variant can evade the immune system and existing vaccines better than the original virus, it is not deadlier. This variant is 50% more transmissible due to the N501Y mutation, easily evading the immune systems of those that have already had the virus 20% better than the original virus due to the E484K mutation.
The Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccination scheme was paused in South Africa because this vaccine was found not to protect against this variant. The Novavax and Johnson & Johnson vaccine is also less effective against it. Studies are still ongoing to determine the effect of vaccines on this, and other variants, but early results suggest that vaccines will be effective, just to a lesser degree. Targeted testing in small towns has helped control the spread of this variant in the UK, on top of the current travel restrictions to and from South Africa.
3. Brazil (P.1)
Just last week, reports emerged of the Brazil P.1 variant in the UK. Three cases were found in England and another three in Scotland: those in England were two people of the same household and one other isolated incident, while the three cases in Scotland were all oil workers returning from Brazil. Manaus was greatly affected by this variant earlier this year and studies have shown a reinfection rate of 25-60%. However, many experts believe that this variant is unlikely to become a dominating strain in the UK population due to the low number of people currently infected, and the close monitoring of these households.
4. The Hybrid
On the 2nd of February, a virtual science conference by the New York Academy of Sciences reported that two lineages, the B.1.1.7 variant (UK) and the B.1.429 variant (Southern California), had formed a hybrid through co-infection (one person being infected by both at the same time). This hybrid has spike protein properties making it more transmissible and potentially more resistant to antibodies.
Though this may have been responsible for the Los Angeles COVID-19 cases increase, not much is known for certain about this new hybrid and its potential impact.
With the combined impact of increased transmission, increased ability to evade the immune system and increased deaths, it’s fair to say that the UK wins the battle of the virus strains – at least so far. Rule Britannia. Recombination of coronavirus is not a surprise, in fact, it was expected, so modifications to the currently available vaccines have already begun in order to make them more effective against variants.
It is important to note that any vaccine is better than none when it comes to protecting yourself against this ever-evolving virus. With the success of the vaccination scheme and ongoing studies determining the impact each strain has on our immune systems, it is extremely unlikely that any variant will be able to replicate the catastrophic impact of the first.
By Tharushi Wijesiri
Header image: NPR