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).
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