• Pre-Collegiate Global Health Review

Exploring New Variants of the Virus that Causes COVID-19

By Anirudh Gundapantula, duPont Manual High School, Louisville, Kentucky, USA


All of us know how detrimental the COVID-19 pandemic has been. However, with companies such as Pfizer, Moderna, and Johnson and Johnson rapidly developing and producing vaccines, it seems that there is light at the end of a very dark tunnel.


Recently, new strains of the virus causing COVID-19 have emerged in countries such as South Africa and the United Kingdom. To understand and ultimately to stay safe from the variants, we should first understand what exactly virus mutation is and the process behind it. A mutation is an alteration of a virus’ or cell’s genetic material (Griffiths, 2020). During the replication of genetic material, there is sometimes a copying error in the DNA. The DNA sequence is like a long word, and when you spell the word incorrectly you can get another word. The same is true for viruses, when they mutate, it is their replication gone wrong. This happens over time and when this happens for long enough, the surface of a virus can change, which means that certain antibodies will not work on it (Breakthroughs Staff, 2020). You can think about this as a Lego toy set. When you buy a Lego set with a different instruction book, the Lego pieces from the set would not make the external structure that you have the instruction book for. Now, let us examine some of the new variants of SARS-CoV-2.


As of this writing, two main variants are being circulated. First is the U.K. variant, which was the first variant detected and is known scientifically as B.1.1.7. This variant is known to be 70% more contagious. Spike proteins on the SARS-CoV-2 virus allow it to bind onto and enter human cells. On the virus's spike proteins, there is a mutation known as N501Y, and this mutation allows the virus to get a stronger grip on human cells which makes the strain more contagious (Harvard Health Publishing, 2021). This strain has been plaguing the U.K. with almost 16,000 cases in six days; this variant is of top concern for their government (UK Government, 2021). Additionally, data is accumulating that the variant increases the risk of death by 60% (Terry, 2021). The good news is that studies show the AstraZeneca vaccine is indeed effective against the U.K. variant (Medical Press, 2021).

Figure 1. Rendition of the U.K. variant (Desai, 2021).


Next is the South African variant. This variant also contains the N501Y mutation on its spike proteins which also makes this variant more contagious (Harvard Health Publishing, 2021). The variant is known as B.1.351 and was detected in October of 2020. A specific variant, the 501.V2 variant, can dodge the antibodies developed from previously having COVID-19. In January of 2021, South Africa closed its land borders in order to contain the virus (Makoni, 2021). Nevertheless, the variant spread to multiple countries. While recent studies have shown that the variant could “break through the Pfizer vaccine," the protection conferred by the vaccine is highly effective and is still strongly recommended (Lubell, 2021).

Figure 2. Rendition of the South African variant (Staff, 2021).


The bottom line is that despite these variants and those that continue to emerge, there are multiple ways to decrease the risk of morbidity and mortality from COVID-19. In addition to vaccination which is imperative, social distancing, wearing masks, and hand sanitizing are also important. With regards to which specific vaccine to choose out of those available to you, experts say that just getting vaccinated (and the overall population vaccinated) is of highest priority to end this pandemic (Berg, 2021).

References


Berg, S. (2021, January 20). Which COVID-19 vaccine should I Get? What to to tell your patients. Retrieved February 27, 2021, from https://www.ama-assn.org/delivering-care/public-health/which-covid-19-vaccine-should-i-get-what-tell-your-patients


Desai, S. (2021, January 11). France: Cluster of UK variant identified in Marseilles. Retrieved January 25, 2021, from https://www.aa.com.tr/en/europe/france-cluster-of-uk-variant-identified-in-marseilles/2105371


Gallagher, J. (2020, December 20). New coronavirus variant: What do we know? Retrieved January 22, 2021, from https://www.bbc.com/news/health-55388846


Government, U. K. (2021, April 15). Variants: distribution of cases data. GOV.UK. https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/covid-19-variants-genomically-confirmed-case-numbers/variants-distribution-of-cases-data.


Griffiths, A. J. (2020, March 16). Mutation. Retrieved January 21, 2021, from https://www.britannica.com/science/mutation-genetics


Lubell, M. (2021, April 18). South African variant may 'break through' Pfizer vaccine protection, but vaccine highly effective, Israeli study says. Reuters. https://www.reuters.com/world/middle-east/south-african-variant-may-break-through-pfizer-vaccine-protection-vaccine-highly-2021-04-18/.


Makoni, M. (2021, January 23). South Africa responds to new SARS-CoV-2 variant. The Lancet. https://www.thelancet.com/journals/lancet/article/PIIS0140-6736(21)00144-6/fulltext.


Perrigo, B. (2020, December 21). New COVID-19 Strain: Contagious Mutation Reported in U.K. Retrieved December 24, 2020, from https://time.com/5923758/new-covid-strain-uk/


Publishing, H. (2021, January 20). Coronavirus Resource Center. Retrieved January 22, 2021, from https://www.health.harvard.edu/diseases-and-conditions/coronavirus-resource-center

Staff, A. (2021, January 19). What you need to know about the 501Y.V2 (B.1.351) South African Variant of SARS-CoV-2. Retrieved January 25, 2021, from https://www.thermofisher.com/blog/ask-a-scientist/what-you-need-to-know-about-the-501y-v2-b-1-351-south-african-variant-of-sars-cov-2/


Staff, S. (2021, February 05). AstraZeneca vaccine effective against UK VARIANT:Oxford University. Retrieved April 01, 2021, from https://medicalxpress.com/news/2021-02-astrazeneca-vaccine-effective-uk-variant.html

Terry, M. (2021, January 06). Virologists Voice Growing Concern Over South African COVID-19 Variant. Retrieved January 24, 2021, from https://www.biospace.com/article/growing-concern-over-the-south-africa-covid-19-strain/


Terry, M. (2021, March 16). Data Suggests UK COVID-19 Strain Increases Risk of Death By More Than 60%. BioSpace. https://www.biospace.com/article/more-data-suggests-uk-covid-19-strain-is-deadlier-than-other-strains/.


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Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19). (2020, August 26). Retrieved December 24, 2020, from https://www.cdc.gov/dotw/covid-19/index.html