Almost a year has passed since the first outbreak of Covid-19 and the world is eagerly waiting for good riddance. Several vaccines are on the verge of being administered to the general public, but alarm bells have also started ringing over a new and faster-spreading strain of the coronavirus which was first found in parts of England. The BBC reported that according to Health Secretary Matt Hancock, “at least 60 different local authorities had reported Covid-19 infections caused by the new variant”. Hancock also informed the House of Commons that in the past few weeks, there had been a sharp and exponential rise in coronavirus infections across different parts of London, Kent, Essex, and Hertfordshire. He described the new coronavirus strain as “out of control”.
A member of the UK government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage), Professor Sir Mark Walport, has said that there is a real possibility that the strain could have a “transmission advantage”.
In response to the growing number of cases associated with the new strain, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced new and stricter coronavirus restrictions in London and parts of England to combat the alarming surge in infections. He stated that this new virulent strain could be up to 70% “more transmissible”.
European countries have banned flights from the UK while England`s Chief Medical Officer Chris Whitty has said that the authorities have alerted the World Health Organisation and are continuing to analyse the available data to improve their understanding of the new strain. England is already one of the worst-hit European countries with more than 67,000 deaths and more than 2 million cases of the novel coronavirus reported so far.
Earlier in Russia, a new coronavirus mutation had been found amongst people in Siberia. Russia-based Anna Popova said, “We see certain changes in Siberia which allow us to assume that in this region the novel coronavirus is forming its own version with specific mutations”. Similarly, Denmark and a few other countries in Europe began noticing a new coronavirus mutation stemming from wild animal populations.
In India, there has not yet been any report of a mutation. Niti Aayog member VK Paul said, “We have studied thousands of virus samples systematically and till now we haven’t seen this mutation, but we are being watchful.”
Now let’s ponder on the question of what is a mutation? A healthy human cell when infected by coronavirus has viral particles entering through the respiratory path, which then multiply inside the body, releasing millions of new viruses, all carrying copies of the original genome (genetic makeup of the virus). As the cell copies the viral genome (in this case, RNA), it sometimes makes mistakes, usually just a single wrong molecular alteration, in its genetic sequence. This changes its previous genetic makeup and in turn gives it some new characteristics. These typos or errors are called mutations. As coronaviruses spread from person to person, they randomly accumulate more mutations.
One of the remarkable features of the novel coronavirus is its ability to mutate in other biological species. It can cause great devastation to not only humans but also to animals and to some plants. Recently it was reported that for the first time, the disease has been confirmed in a tiger at New York’s Bronx Zoo, apparently infected by an employee. Moreover, six other tigers and lions were also showing “similar symptoms.”
Professor and head of department of Life Sciences at Shiv Nadar University, Deepak Sehgal, explains that “the new strain of the virus is known to have 13 mutations in the spike protein, of which the N501Y mutation is responsible for it spreading 70 percent faster than earlier versions of the virus”. Spike proteins are the radiating needle-like structures present on the surface of the coronavirus which help the viral particles to stick and penetrate healthy human cells.
There are assumptions that these mutations may render vaccines ineffective but Deepak Sehgal says that “vaccines produce antibodies against many regions in the spike protein, so it’s unlikely that a single change would make the vaccine less effective”. He referred to the virus that causes seasonal flu, which mutates every year and the vaccine is adjusted accordingly. The Covid-19 virus is not mutating as fast as the flu virus, Sehgal said.
Amidst speculations, there is a strong probability of mutated coronavirus strains being more contagious. The consequences of this have both intrigued and worried researchers and policymakers worldwide. The best way to hinder the possibility of any further deadlier mutations occurring in the population is to provide vaccine shots as soon as possible, and enforce the existing restrictions till the vaccine is made publicly accessible.
The writer is a student of MSc Bioinformatics at Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi. [email protected]