Just like life in general, the Coronavirus pandemic seems to have its ups and downs. While on one hand, vaccine programs are being rolled out the world over, on the other, new COVID-19 strains have been emerging. In December 2020, it was reported that a new variant of the coronavirus that causes COVID-19, was identified in the United Kingdom. Since then, other variants have been identified elsewhere and are under investigation as well. The new UK strain, which was rumoured to be deadlier and more transmissible began to raise a lot of questions and rightfully so. It is vital to know and be aware of the dangers you may face. Will you be at a greater risk of catching the virus? Will the COVID-19 vaccines work? Is there anything new or different you can do to keep you and your family safe?
Here is everything you need to know about the new virus.
How do variants emerge?
Coronaviruses have their genetic material in something called RNA (ribonucleic acid). When it infects us, they attach themselves to our cells, get inside them and make copies of their RNA to help them spread. Sometimes, copying mistakes occur and the RNA gets changed. These random accidents are called mutations, and it is a normal part of what happens to multiplying viruses.
What is Different About the UK Virus Strain?
The mutation found in the UK virus strain is hardly “new”, as it was discovered in September 2020. The coronavirus mutations were first found in both a South African variant (B.1.351) and a Brazilian variant (P.1). It was later found in a UK variant as well (B.1.1.7), which has accounted for about 70% of COVID-19 cases in the UK since December 2020. This newly discovered variant saw a huge spike in cases in south-east England and London.
The variant is said to spread about 70% faster and easier than COVID-19 (SARS-CoV-2). In January 2021, experts reported that this variant may be associated with an increased risk of death compared to other variant viruses, but more studies are needed to confirm this finding. Scientists have put all of their efforts into studying the various mutations occurring. One such mutation that requires concern is the E484K mutation in the spike protein. This mutation occurs specifically in the Receptor Binding Domain (RBD) section of the coronavirus. This section helps the virus latch onto our cells and infect us. Mutations in the RBD can make the virus more infectious by helping it to bind more tightly to our cells.
How Does This Strain Affect the COVID-19 Vaccine?
One of the key factors in taking the COVID-19 vaccine is that we develop immunity to the coronavirus. This is also true for patients who have got the virus already. This immunity is mainly due to the development of antibodies that bind to the Receptor Binding Domain. A mutation of COVID-19 affecting this domain would make the new vaccine ineffectual by evading these antibodies. E484K is one such mutation. There has been growing speculation that this mutation may affect the vaccine as it continues to mutate, however, this has yet to be confirmed by experts. The vaccine may need to be reworked and several booster shots may be required.
As of February 2021, there have been 11 cases of this mutation. Studies are still underway, therefore there is very limited information available. But the minimal cases that are being seen in the UK with the E484K mutation could be an indication that the increased immunity that the COVID-19 vaccine provides, is working. The World Health Organization (WHO) says laboratory studies are ongoing to determine whether the new virus has different biological properties or could alter vaccine efficacy. Read our blog for an insight into the mRNA COVID-19 vaccine.
How are Officials Tracking the New Strain?
Officials in the UK continue to conduct various epidemiological and virological investigations to determine whether the variant causes people to become sicker, whether it can re-infect people who previously had Covid-19 and what kind of antibody response it prompts. They are also conducting genomic surveillance to understand the scope of spread of the new variant across the country and have placed affected areas under tier 4 restrictions, the strongest Covid rules in the country.
In the United States, the CDC states that the new strain could already be among the country. The CDC launched a new program in November, the National SARS-CoV-2 Strain Surveillance program, to sequence more virus samples. Each state in the US is expected to send the CDC at least 10 samples every other week for sequencing and further study.
What Can You Do To Keep Yourself Safe?
According to the CDC, the new strains of the virus can still be detected by the original COVID-19 tests. It would therefore be advised to get tested for the COVID-19 virus if you have any of the following symptoms; cough, cold, fever, breathlessness, etc. We at Buckhead Medicine provide the required COVID-19 testing in Georgia, Atlanta. Getting tested before and after travelling to and from the US is also vital. Read our blog on which COVID-19 tests are required for international travel (Will attach the link when the blog is live) to know more.
Studies are yet to show whether the new variants render the vaccine ineffective. Studies have shown, however, that the new variants still respond to the COVID-19 medication that is being used to treat infected people. After you get tested for the virus, ensure that you get in touch with your healthcare provider to follow up on your condition and administer the right medications.