Can vaccines defeat the ever-mutating coronavirus?
London has gone into a complete lockdown this holiday season after a new variant of the Covid-19 virus was discovered in the United Kingdom. Prime minister Boris Johnson immediately imposed Tier 4 restrictions to suspend the rapid spread of the virus.
Scientists are not surprised by this new discovery. Researchers have observed thousands of changes in the genetic data of Sars-CoV-2 that causes the coronavirus disease and has been there all around the world since its spread in 2019. The mutations can affect how the virus infects the human cells, how severe the disease can get, how easily the virus spreads and its response to the immune system including to the vaccines.
They believe due to vaccination and response of the human immune system, the survival of the pathogen becomes difficult causing it to evolve that can make it spread easily or go undetected by the immune system. “This thing’s transmitting, it’s acquiring, it’s adapting all the time. But people don’t want to hear what we say, which is: This virus will mutate,” Dr Ravindra Gupta, a University of Cambridge virologist told the New York Times.
Muge Cevik, a scientific advisor to the British government and expert in infectious disease at the University of St Andrews in Scotland, told NYT that the new variant discovered in Britain has around 20 mutations, including some that can impact how the virus restrains the cells in the human body and infect. These modifications can enable the virus to spread efficiently and proliferate faster. He also said British officials believe that the variant is as much as 70 per cent more communicable, though this has not been confirmed in lab experiments yet.
Responding to the greater concerns of the virus mutating to a level where it can get immune to the vaccine being developed around the world, scientists have said that it will take more than years for the virus to mutate to such extent. “We pay most attention to mutations in the gene that encodes the Spike protein, which is associated with viral entry into cells and it is relevant in the context of immunity and vaccine efficacy,” researchers of Covid-19 Genomics UK (COG-UK) said in a report.
Trevor Bedford, an evolutionary biologist in Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in the US, told NYT that the new vaccines developed by Pfizer BioTech and Moderna are being made in a way that can be updated easily in comparison to the traditional vaccines. He said the new vaccines are capable of generating a great immune response to the virus so the coronavirus needs years of mutation for the vaccines to be modified.
Covid-19 Genomics UK (COG-UK) consortium collects, sequence, analyze the genomes of the coronavirus samples in the UK to add to the wealth of knowledge required to combat the disease. “As vaccines are rolled out, it will be important to sequence SARS-CoV-2 virus from infected people who have been vaccinated or have had a second episode of Covid-19. The aim is to detect variants that are evading the immune system elicited by past infection or vaccination,” the COG-UK report on the mutations said.
The fears of the new variant have spread all across the globe that has isolated the UK. Many European nations, as well as countries like Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Canada and others, have suspended their international flights. The new variant was found in the UK, South Africa and in Danish minks.
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