Like all viruses, Sars-CoV-2 is capable of changing its genetic code and the way that it behaves in our bodies. Because this virus is being studied so intensely – a discipline known as phylodynamics – the current mutations are receiving more scrutiny than ever. In fact, this virus has probably mutated many times since it was first spotted, it’s just that we are only gradually detecting them because testing has been rolled out into broad populations throughout the world.

In fact, some variants of Covid-19 are less virulent and may have no adverse consequences whatsoever. The reason why the government is so concerned about the new strain is that there is a greater chance of people becoming infected because it spreads between people far more easily. There is no evidence – so far – that it causes people to become more ill in a shorter period of time. However, if more people become infected that will put enormous strains on our healthcare system.

It isn’t yet clear if this specific change in virus biology affects disease progression but it is more likely that it affects transmission – catching it has become easier but the way our bodies react remains the same. So the basic advice hasn’t changed – wash hands regularly, cover your face and socially distance yourself from others.

In effect, the mutation makes it easier for the virus to latch on to human cells and then gain entry. Public Health England has said the new variant includes a mutation in the spike protein1 – these are the spikes that you can see protruding from the outside of coronavirus images and which help them infect human cells. This means that it can spread more easily between people, what’s known as ‘transmission advantage’ – up to 70 percent more quickly according to some reports.

There are currently around 4,000 mutations in the spike protein gene2. The Covid-19 Genomics UK (COG-UK) consortium says it is vital to allow proper study of mutated genes before coming to any firm conclusions and that it would take ‘considerable time and effort to test the effect of many thousands of combinations of mutations’.3

However, because all of the successful vaccines so far have been tested on a mixture of different virus strains it means that it is highly likely – though not certain – that their effectiveness is still strong.

The immune system is strengthened by producing B-cell and T-cell antibodies. The former are like guided missiles which latch on to viruses and help to destroy them. The latter are the radar guiding those missiles, checking up on the body’s health and then acting as an early warning system. It’s easier to measure B-cell responses but the Covid vaccines stimulate both types of immunity, which should give everyone great confidence.

It’s normal for a virus to adapt and evolve; it’s standard evolutionary behaviour considering that millions of people have been infected by it. Most mutations will not be significant or put people’s lives in any more danger than they currently are.

In association with communications consultancy, GF Media

 

References

  1. https://www.gov.uk/government/news/phe-investigating-a-novel-variant-of-covid-19
  2. https://www.ecdc.europa.eu/en/publications-data/threat-assessment-brief-rapid-increase-sars-cov-2-variant-united-kingdom
  3. https://www.cogconsortium.uk/news_item/persistent-sars-cov-2-infection-and-viral-evolution-tracked-in-an-immunocompromised-patient/