Just before Christmas last year, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced a new lockdown due to a newly discovered COVID-19 mutation.

The mutant coronavirus, B.1.1.7, is thought to be up to 70 percent more transmissible that the original COVID-19 virus. It has already been detected in certain parts of the US.

A few days ago, South Africa’s health officials made an announcement that they have detected a new and more contagious strain.

Do viruses mutate?

Yes, viruses do mutate and get stronger. That’s what they do, and since mutated versions are stronger, they can infect people easier than the original version.

Even the flu virus mutates. Your flu vaccination differs each year, as scientists discover different influenza strains. That is why it is important that you ask your medical practitioner for the latest version of the influenza vaccine, as it will offer the latest protection against new flu strains.

Scientists theorize the new coronavirus strains have mutants that help the virus bind or stick on to our cells. They are researching whether the new variants will make the current vaccines less effective. Researchers are also studying if the new strains makes the illness more severe and cause another type of pandemic.

What happens when viruses mutate?

As viruses mutate, new versions appear. These new versions are stronger and as such, their survival rate increases.

Virologist Dr Benjamin Newman says, “Mostly the changes are bad for each individual virus, but together, a population of weaker but more diverse viruses has a better chance of survival than the same sized population of identical viruses”. Dr Neuman is from Texas A&M University Texarkana in the US.

Mutations can improve the virus’s performance, as can be seen in the new strains found in the UK and South Africa.

South African new strain

This coronavirus strain is called the B.1.351 lineage. Scientists find this strain to be more transmissible.

The World Health Organization says the B.1.351 variant has replaced other strains in certain South African areas in November.

Medical researchers have raised the alarm that there is a possibility the B.1.351 variant could resist currently available vaccines or medications. However there is no firm evidence to prove this theory yet.

What about the current vaccines?

The current vaccine provides immunity against the spike protein found in the virus. Spike protein is the part of the virus that sticks onto our cells.

Former US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) Commissioner, Dr Scott Gottlieb says antibody treatment may not work well with mutant viruses. Antibody treatment is carried out by giving antibodies from recovered patients to new COVID-19 patients.

Ongoing research

Dr Neuman feels more research is necessary to find out if increased transmissions of COVID-19 is related to the spike protein mutations. Research has to be done to study the impact mutant variants could have on current vaccines.

An immunologist and Yale Medicine Laboratory Medicine physician, Dr Ellen Foxman, suspects there may be other related issues such as population behaviour and habits. Another fact to note as to why the virus is spreading faster, is because it is more widespread than it was at the beginning of 2020.

It is easier for a virus to spread when more people are infected.

Conclusion

While not causing undue alarm our readers, it is a known fact that all viruses mutate. The coronavirus has two new variants in the UK and South Africa, which are believed to be more transmissible.

We should follow the advice repeatedly given by medical experts:

  • Wear a face mask.
  • Practice social distancing.
  • Wash hands with soap often; at least 20 secs each time.
  • Go out only when necessary, and make your trips as short as possible.

By Aaron
8th January 2021 23:00

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