There have been reports that the federal government is struggling to track COVID-19 mutations. This follows news of a new strain arriving from the UK and moving throughout the US. Otherwise known as B.1.1.7, this variant is (at the time of writing) nearly doubling in prevalence among confirmed cases in the US every nine days.

The UK strain is 35-45% more transmissible than the initial strain of the virus currently in the US. And, as with the original, the risk is highest for the elderly and those with underlying health conditions.

However, this is just one of the three known new variants making their way across the globe. So, to help explain the importance of tracking these variants and how they can affect you, we have broken down the differences below as well as their reaction to the vaccines.

What is a variant?

A variant is a mutated version of a virus, in this case COVID-19. And it should come as no surprise that COVID-19 has mutated, either: COVID-19 itself is just a type of coronavirus, coming from an extensive family of viruses. In fact, all viruses mutate eventually. Changes build up in their genetic code, creating new strains that are then passed from person to person.

For the most part, these changes are so insignificant that they have little impact on the general public. There are some cases, though, where the virus mutates in a way that benefits it. This can be through developments that make it spread faster or become harder to detect in our bodies.

There is no scientific evidence to confirm that the three variants currently known to us – B.1.1.7, B.1.351 and P.1 – are more lethal than the original. However, by being able to spread faster, it is increasingly likely that vulnerable people will catch the disease and require hospitalization.

The UK variant

First detected towards the end of 2020, B.1.1.7 contains within it a large number of mutations, most of which involve the virus’ spike protein. This is what helps the virus invade human cells.

It has spread to at least 70 countries since it emerged, and the fact that it seems to have replaced other circulating variants suggests that it has some form of selective advantage – meaning that it spreads faster. Science groups have said they have ‘moderate confidence’ that this is indeed the case.

One of the reasons they believe this to be true is that a mutation in the variant’s spike protein known as N501Y is associated with increased binding of the virus to a receptor found on the surface of our cells. Of course, this is currently an evolving situation, so scientists are suggesting that while they are not certain, there is “a realistic possibility” that this variant is “associated with an increased risk of death”.

The South African variant

The South African variant, otherwise known as B.1.351, was first detected in Nelson Mandela Bay in October 2020. Since then, it has been found in over 30 countries and has quickly outcompeted the initial variants found in South Africa.

Like the UK variant, B.1.351 has a N501Y mutation in the spike protein. However, it also contains several other mutations that are causing concern internationally.

Two of these mutations, E484K and K417N, threaten our immune system. They do this by reducing how well our antibodies bind to the virus. While further testing needs to be done in order to confirm these theories, there is no evidence yet to suggest that the South African variant is more deadly than the original variants.

The Brazilian variant

The most recent of all the variants, P.1, was first detected in Japan in a group of Brazilian travellers. It has since been found (and is highly prevalent) in the Brazilian state of Amazonas, and has been detected in both the United States and South Korea.

Similarly to the South African variant, the Brazilian strain has all three spike protein mutations (N501Y, E484K and K417N), which means that it, too, is thought to both spread much faster and could potentially harm our immune system.

That being said, there are reports that the resurgence of infections in Manaus, the largest city in Amazonas, are a direct result of this new variant. This is despite the population being thought to have reached ‘herd immunity’ in 2020.

What impact do these variants have on the virus?

virus testing lab

Right now, all of the major vaccine developers are testing the efficacy of their vaccines against these variants. And, currently, all of the licensed vaccines protect against the UK variant. However, the South African variant has proved more problematic.

The Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine, in particular, is thought to now only offer minimal protection against the mutation first discovered in South Africa. Yet this does not mean that it offers no protection whatsoever. What is more, all manufacturers are tweaking their vaccines to see how they can improve performance and adapt to the new strains.

It is also worth remembering that, while these vaccines are being re-engineered to combat new strains, breakthroughs are happening in other areas related to the virus. Tocilizumab, a rheumatoid arthritis medication, cut both the risk of death among COVID-19 patients in intensive care and the length of time patients spend in these facilities. The trial is already suggesting that ‘for every 25 patients treated with tocilizumab, a life is saved’.

Our view

New strains were inevitable. But what we can do is closely monitor the spread and protect ourselves from infection. In order to do that, we should limit the contact we have with others. 

For those of you who are shielding and in need of medicinal support, use a service like ours to have medication delivered to you. To find out more about our online pharmacy and how you can place an order, contact us today.