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Despite panic rapidly spreading about the new Coronavirus strain in Southeast England, the on-ground facts suggest a lot more research is necessary before panic ensues. For now, there is no direct evidence that shows that the new strain leads to more serious symptoms or that the newly developed vaccines will not work against it.
The two reasons why it is important to look at the new strains anyway is because the number of variations is often higher, where the number of cases is higher. This could be because the virus could have mutated and evolved to become a variant that spreads more quickly and causes higher numbers of infections. Or it could just be the case of the virus being lucky in the sense that it was carried into a new country by unsuspecting travelers. It will take much more research to actually establish the link between the new virus and how fast, rather faster, it can actually spread.
The second reason why scientists are interested in the new strain is because of the way the virus is mutating. The virus is mutating a lot faster than scientists expected and undoubtedly some of them are turning the scientist’s head more than others.
The two that caught the scientist’s eye the most are N501 and an H69/V70 deletion. Both of these mutations are found in the spike protein that the virus contains. The spike protein helps the virus infect our body and it uses the spike protein as a key to unlock human body cells, eventually hijacking them.
The first mutation changes the receptor-binding domain, which has to be the most important part of the spike. This is the first contact that the virus has with the cells. Whatever mutations a virus undergoes to make it easier for the virus to invade our body, definitely gives it an edge.
If everyone is immunized using the vaccine, it will lead to the virus suffering as it may need to change again to try and infect people that have already gotten immunity.
The H69/V70 deletion on the other hand has occurred as well as emerged several times before, including being spotted in infected minks. In a twist, the concern with this mutation was that those who had survived the coronavirus may not have antibodies that are sufficient, rather effective at attacking this variant of the virus. This hypothesis also needs further scrutiny in a laboratory to actually understand the full picture. For now, scientists know that there are variants but they do not have complete biological evidence to state how important these variants are.
It has been said though that certain kinds of symptoms may be more pronounced with the new strains. Symptoms such as fatigue, diarrhea, mental confusion, muscle pains, and loss of appetite are again reiterated as signs one should look out for. These are unfortunately accompanied by the usual fever, dry cough, and the inability to taste and smell.
But perhaps what is most concerning is how the vaccine will size up against the mutations. Especially since leading vaccines such as those from Pfizer and Moderna, are all developed in a way that they will attack the protein spike. So if the protein spike changes, will the vaccine be effective?
The good news is that our body is just as clever if not more than the virus and it does indeed learn to attack multiple places of the spike, inspiring confidence in researchers about the effectiveness of the vaccine.
Having said that, the coronavirus is tricky and since its start in Wuhan, China, in November last year, it has mutated at least 25 times if not more. In fact, the virus goes through at least two mutations in a month. The virus keeps evolving to increase infectivity or so it seems.
Another variant, dubbed G614, has been seen by many as a strain that helped the coronavirus spread better. If this is true and indeed the evolution of the virus is based on the way and at the rate at which the coronavirus spreads to people, we may be in for a long ride.
Regardless of what we do and do not know about this strain of coronavirus, one thing is for sure, it is mutating like viruses often do, and it will be tricky to treat with just one vaccine especially since its evolution drive is based on infectivity, much like influenza.
Maybe just for this specific reason, the coronavirus vaccine will also have to evolve as time goes on, much like the flu shot, which needs minor tweaks every year to prevent the spread. Regardless, for now, the world waits with bated breath as clinical trials and selective rollouts of the vaccine begin.
– Nida Khan
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