The New COVID-19 Variant: Should we be Concerned?
Updated: Feb 15
By: Silvia DiPaola, Contributing Writer
The novel COVID-19 variant currently running rampant through the UK may have many concerned about the implications of a new coronavirus strain. However, the existence of the new variant, deemed “B.1.1.7,” is not surprising. Here, any misconceptions about B.1.1.7 will be cleared up, on par with information as of 1/23/21.
The new strain was first seen in the UK during September 2020. During December of the same year, governmental documents established it as a “variant of concern” that must be researched further. As of mid-January, It has spread to 60 countries and accounted for 60% of new COVID-19 infections in London.
Delving into the biology of the new virus, we must establish that this new strain of coronavirus is not surprising or unforeseen; viruses in general are known to mutate all the time. They replicate quickly and mutate at a higher rate than multicellular organisms like us. If a particular mutation makes a virus more infectious, it will naturally spread faster and likely become the dominant strain in an area. In fact, this will be the second time that SARS-CoV-2 (the virus that causes COVID-19) has mutated; according to studies done by NYU Langone and the Icahn Institute for Data Science and Genomic Technology, most early cases of coronavirus in New York City came from European strains of the virus rather than the Wuhan, China one. Studies suggest the virus originated in China, then mutated into a new strain (deemed “D614G”) dominated in Europe, and it then spread to the US from Europe. The mutation to cause D614G to proliferate was on the virus’s spike proteins, which enabled it to infect humans faster. No evidence indicates that it causes more severe infections, but it has been seen that people with this strain have higher levels of viral RNA than those with the original strain. This indicates a more established presence of the virus in their bodies compared to the original strain.
As for the current new COVID-19 strain, researchers are performing studies on its infectivity and mortality rates. Depending on how biologically different the new strain is from the previous, the mutated virus will either be more infectious than the current, or the same. There is a realistic possibility that it will be more deadly. According to BBC Health, scientists in the UK believe that there is a 50% chance that the new variant will have a higher mortality rate, but more testing needs to be done.
For viruses like influenza, the virus mutates at such a rapid rate that vaccines need to be updated every year- no two years’ strains are the same.. As for coronavirus, scientists don’t foresee it having the same fast mutation rate as influenza. However, the new B.1.1.7 is concerning to scientists because it is quite different from other SARS-CoV-2 variants. It is thought to have originated in an immunocompromised individual; in such an immune system, the virus is able to proliferate at a rapid rate, increasing the risk of mutations. As for infectivity rates, many more citizens in the U.K. have tested positive for the B.1.1.7 strain, but this could be due to superspreader events and rises in general infection rates. As for the specific mutations on B.1.1.7, the spike protein on the virus was affected, giving it a slightly different appearance.
Somewhat concerningly, the newly manufactured Pfizer and Moderna vaccines are designed to target the spike protein on SARS-CoV-2. Does this mean the new vaccines will not be viable? Not necessarily! Studies are currently underway to determine if the vaccines will respond to this new variant. It is generally thought to be likely that the vaccines will be effective against the new strain. However, future variants are not as safe. As time goes on, SARS-CoV-2 is more likely to mutate to such a high degree that the current vaccines will not be effective against it. This is not so plausible as of now. Fortunately, some preliminary studies, such as one from the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston, have shown that the vaccine is just as effective for the new variant as it is for the old. However, they only studied one mutation on B.1.1.7, so it is not known for sure.
There is still much to learn about the new COVID-19 variant, but this is what is known as of now. More testing and research needs to be done before final conclusions can be drawn. Luckily, the vaccines will very likely be effective against the new strain. Unfortunately, as B.1.1.7 spreads faster than the original strains, more people are likely to die from COVID-19 regardless of mortality rates. It is crucial to continue wearing masks and following social distancing measures even as the vaccines roll out to the public. Monitoring this new variant and future ones that will emerge will be critical to finally ending the pandemic.