- British health officials have discovered a new coronavirus mutation that has spread rapidly in the UK.
- Neither researchers nor health officials know if the strain is more contagious, or if it could complicate matters with vaccines and COVID-19 immunity.
- Scientists have said the new species involves 17 different genetic changes, most of which affect the spike protein the virus uses to infect cells.
- Antibodies created after infection or vaccination target the spike protein, so any major change in that protein can affect COVID-19 immunity.
British health officials announced on Monday that a new strain of coronavirus has been discovered in Britain and has spread rapidly. “We have currently identified more than 1,000 cases with this variant, mainly in the south of England, although cases have been identified in nearly 60 different local authorities,” Health Secretary Matt Hancock told the House of Commons. “We don’t know how much of this is due to the new variant, but whatever the cause, we need to act quickly and decisively, which is unfortunately absolutely necessary to keep this deadly disease under control while the vaccine is rolled out.”
A new report gives us more details on the brief history of this new mutation.
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“This variant carries a series of mutations, including an N501Y mutation in the receptor binding motif of the Spike protein, which the virus uses to bind to the human ACE2 receptor,” said the UK COVID-19 Genomics Consortium.
This isn’t the first new coronavirus mutation to get a lot of publicity. The D614G strain is the dominant version around the world and the one that is said to have sparked the pandemic. The mutation was derived from the Wuhan tribe and soon took over the world. Many studies say the D614G mutation has made the virus more contagious because it can bind more efficiently to human cells. The Cluster 5 mutation is the mink mutation found in Denmark and believed to have acquired means to evade neutralizing antibodies, such as those that elicit vaccines. Those claims have yet to be fully verified.
The UK is the world leader in monitoring coronavirus mutations, The Washington Post reports. Super-fast sequencers that can study samples from thousands of patients give the Genomic Consortium an edge over others. Labs in the UK identified the mutations in late September. In December, more than 1,100 people were found to be infected with the mutated version. Hancock was notified of the new species on Friday, and meetings were subsequently held on the matter over the weekend.
British researchers were surprised by the sudden prevalence of the N501Y version. “This line came up pretty quickly,” said Nick Loman The mail. A professor of microbial genomics at the University of Birmingham, Loman, revealed that the number of different mutations was striking. The variant contained 17 mutations, most of them in the genome segment encoding the spike protein.
That spike protein is the key the virus uses to bind to and infect cells. COVID-19 vaccines will train the immune response to produce antibodies that block the spike, making infection of cells nearly impossible. In practice, this means that the virus will have an impossible job of descending into the lungs from the nose, which will still act as the original point of infection in the body. But if the virus mutates and changes the protein structure of the peak, vaccines may not be as effective.
Also important is the fact that millions of survivors have neutralizing antibodies in their blood after infection and other components of the immune system trained to remember the coronavirus and defeat it in a future battle. If the spike protein can avoid that protection, some people could be re-infected with the new species.
That said, Loman said there is no evidence that the N501Y is spreading faster or that it causes more serious illness. It may be a coincidence that the species gained equal traction, and researchers will have to continue to study its evolution. The next step is to determine if the strain is more contagious, and scientists are already conducting such experiments in laboratories.
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The mail refers to two new coronavirus studies that highlight the potential of mutations. In one case, a UK patient died after the coronavirus was mutated during a long-term illness in response to plasma transfusion antibodies. Another study says mutations can make the virus more contagious in response to “immune selection pressure,” and those genetic changes in the virus are becoming more common. However, these studies have not been peer-reviewed.
Although researchers familiar with the new mutations in the coronavirus have begun to reveal more details about the species following Hancock’s comment on Monday, much is still not known about this version. More research is needed to determine whether N501Y is a cause for concern or not.