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Figuring out the the COVID-19 variants

The COVID-19 pandemic has been ongoing for a year now, with schools, colleges, offices and all forms of entertainment still shut in most parts of the world. This is a peculiar situation, once in a lifetime incident, but now after a year, no-one wants to be part of such an event anymore. Children miss out on a year at school, college students lose any kind of social skills they had developed, working parents try to manage th eir toddlers and the unending spreadsheets from work and the older generation try and not get infected or infect someone, playing their umpteenth round of Bingo.

WIth a vaccine developing in Russia, India, The United Kingdom and the United States to name a few, a happier new year was supposed to ensue any moment, But, unfortunately, it came to a new drastic change. The coronavirus mutates, like other viruses. The question arises, are viruses expected to change form and will the vaccine protect us against a mutating SARS-CoV-2?

A basic fact of virology is that viruses mutate over time. Mutation is a part of the life-cycle of a virus. Once the virus latches on to a host, it begins to replicate, and make copies of itself. During the process of virus replication, random errors arise, one or two protein molecules change, possibly induced by the immune response mounted within infected people, explains P.B. Rajesh, vice-president, Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh, U.K. These changes in the genomic structure of the virus can be considered mutations -- not all mutations are significant, but those that affect the virus’ ability to survive or replicate are important.

The virus variant has also sparked some other concerns. It is rapidly replacing other versions of the virus, has mutations that affect part of the virus likely to be important and some of those mutations have already been shown in the lab to increase the ability of the virus to infect cells.However, we do not have absolute certainty. New strains can become more common simply by being in the right place at the right time - such as London, which had only tier two restrictions until recently.

According to WHO, its chief, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, said that it was to be expected that the nivel coronavirus mutates over time. He said that the U.K. had reported that the transmission of the disease was higher. Regarding its severity therehas been no proof that it is more dangerous. Ongoing studies will clear confusion regarding its effects.

The new strain of the vaccine was identified in genomic surveillance by COVID-19 Genomics UK (COG-UK), a consortium that overlooks genome sequencing data in the U.K. The variant is the result of multiple mutations in the spike protein (the point of viral entry into the host) of SARS-CoV-2, as well as mutations in other genomic regions of the RNA virus. COG-UK reportedly identified one of these mutations as ‘N501Y’, in an area of the spike protein that binds to a key protein in the human cell, the ACE2 receptor. This was an indication that the alterations may, theoretically, result in the virus becoming more infectious, it said. As of December 13, according to Public Health England (PHE), there were 1,108 cases of the variant identified “predominantly in the South and East of England”. The increase in cases linked to the new variant first came to light in late November when PHE was investigating why infection rates in Kent were not falling despite national restrictions.

While studies are on to determine the impact of the vaccine on severity of disease or mortality, Dr. Rajesh explains: “What we need to know about the new variant is its implication with the vaccine, but at this point of time, it is unknown. It is early days to be certain. Ongoing work is something we are looking forward to. What does this variation do for a vaccine which will any way stimulate a broad antibody response? The hope is that it won’t be significantly hampered by the mutation.” All three leading vaccines develop an immune response against the existing spike, which is why the question comes up. Vaccines train the immune system to attack several different parts of the virus, so even though part of the spike has mutated, the vaccines should still work.

So how do we combat, yet another strain of the virus? Simply by following all the original advice on COVID-19 hygiene. Using a face mask, regularly washing hands, and maintaining distance with others when in a public setting will continue to be the best practical ways of preventing the infection, experts insist.

Written by Shreya Datta

Illustrated by Jeia So

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