New coronavirus variants across the global could interrupt the progress being made in the battle against the pandemic.
Over the past few weeks, a number of new strains have been found, including in the UK, South Africa and Brazil.
Scientists warn that these new variants could easily reinfect people who have survived COVID-19 because there is possible resistance against antibodies, which evades the immune system response generated by the first infection.
What’s more, they caution that the variants could force researchers to update vaccines often to the point that it becomes like the flu with a shot needed every season.
New coronavirus strains may be able to bypass the immune response that COVID-19 survivors have developed and allow for easier reinfection. Pictured: Medical Director of the ICU Dr Thomas Yadegar checks the vital signs of Dr Neil Hecht and his wife Mindy Cross (center) at Providence Cedars-Sinai Tarzana Medical Center in Tarzana, California, January 3
Vaccines may also have to be updated to target mutations seen on the spike protein, which the virus uses to enter and infect cells. Pictured: A man receives a dose of the Moderna coronavirus vaccine at a vaccination site in the Bronx, New York ,January 10
Dr Nuno Faria, a virologist at Imperial College London and associate professor at the University of Oxford, told Science Magazine that Manaus, Brazil, is a perfect case study of how variants can undo progress.
In December 2020, he co-authored a paper estimating 75 percent of the city’s population had been infected with the virus, enough for herd immunity.
However, around the same time, cases of COVID-19 began to rise again and hospital beds were being filled.
‘It was hard to reconcile these two things,’ Faria told the magazine.
By looking at samples, he discovered a new variant had developed that had been spreading across the city.
Of 31 samples collected in mid-December, 13 had the new linage called P.1, and it appeared to circumvent the immune response triggered by virus that had been infecting people earlier in the year.
Of course, P.1 is not the only variant. Several have arisen across the globe, perhaps none more notable than B 1.1.7., first identified in the UK.
B 1.1.7., which is believed to be up to 70 percent more transmissible that other variants, has infected nearly 100 people in 18 U.S. states.
And, last week, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released a report saying it could become the more prevalent strain in the country by March.
Another variant, called 501Y.V2, was first detected in South Africa has spread to several other nations, but not the U.S.
B 1.1.7., which is believed to be up to 70 percent more transmissible that other variants, has infected nearly 100 people in 18 U.S. states, along with some homegrown variants
One pre-print study found that the South Africa variant has mutations to the spike protein, which the virus uses to infect human cells, which reduced the potency in convalescent plasma by 10-fold.
Plasma is the liquid portion of blood that is transferred into COVID-19 patients in hopes they will develop antibodies needed to fight off the virus.
The study’a author, Jesse Bloom, an evolutionary biologist at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, did note to Science Magazine that this does necessarily mean people’s natural immunity decreased 10-fold if infected with a new mutation.
He adds that the Brazil variant, P.1, is concerning because that mutations are similar and it causing cases to rise in areas believed to have a high immunity threshold.
‘Anytime you see the same mutations arising and starting to spread multiple times, in different viral strains across the world, that’s really strong evidence that there’s some evolutionary advantage to those mutations,’ Bloom told Science Magazine.
‘I would expect that those viruses have some advantage when a lot of the population has immunity.’
There is currently no evidence that any of the variants are resistant to either Pfizer of Moderna COVID-19 vaccines.
However, the fact that new mutations keep cropping up is concerning
‘The not-so-good news is that the rapid evolution of these variants suggests that if it is possible for the virus to evolve into a vaccine-resistant phenotype, this may happen sooner than we like,’ Philip Krause, chair of a WHO working group on COVID-19 vaccines, told Science Magazine.
There is a sense of urgency to vaccinate people as soon as possible to at least deal with the most prevalent strains right now.
If need be, vaccines could be easily be reformulated to respond to different mutations of the spike protein.
This does mean they would likely have to go through more Food and Drug Administration scrutiny before being authorized
‘To be clear: These are downstream considerations,’ Krause told Science Magazine.
‘The public should not think that this is imminent, and that new vaccines will be needed.’