Why you should not panic about the UK mutant coronavirus virus

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A new coronovirus strain was detected in the United Kingdom and spread in southern England known as “highly contagious”, sending the country into a strict lockdown at the Christmas break. The variant, first identified in September, is being closely monitored by scientists and researchers in an effort to understand whether it is more contagious or contagious than previous variants.

The case for the edition, dubbed VUI 202012/01 (for the “version under investigation”), has grown rapidly over the past month, leading to scrutiny by UK authorities. It has also been reported in the Netherlands, Denmark, Belgium and Australia. A preliminary study of the new strain suggests that it has an abnormally high 17 mutations in its genetic code, some of which may alter key features.

However, it is unclear whether this mutant form of coronovirus is more transmitted based on these genetic variations alone. “We cannot tell from the sequence that [the] The set of mutations would lead to a somewhat better broadcast on it, ”says Ian McKay, a virologist at the University of Queensland, Australia.

On Saturday, the UK Prime Minister, Boris Johnson said, “When the virus changes its way of attack, we must change our method of defense” but it, perhaps, monitors the capabilities of the new strain, about which We still know very little. One of the main models of epidemiology is the “triad” that counteracts diseases caused by infectious agents, hosts, and the environment. “When you move fast [of cases]All three things are contributing to this, ”says Catherine Bennett, chair in epidemiology at Deakin University, Australia.

It may well be that a genetic mutation of the variants has improved its ability to move from person to person or it may be a combination of increased movement and bad luck. Scientists will spend the next few weeks trying to unravel that mystery. The probe begins with a spike protein.

New mutants

Viruses are always changing. They mutate. These small changes in their genes sometimes confer survival benefits, or enhance the “fitness” of the virus. The coronavirus, SARS-CoV-2, is no different. This is not cause for concern and is not unexpected – thousands of mutations have occurred since the genome of SARS-CoV-2 was sequenced in January.

“It mutates constantly as people pass through,” McKay says.

Think of the genetic code of the virus as an imitation of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone And your cells as photocopies. The virus wants to make millions of copies of Harry Potter. Each time it hijacks a cell, it creates a copy-after-copy of Harry Potter. But this process is flawed. Sometimes entire pages are missing. At other times the pages are repeated or whole new pages are added. Most of the time it doesn’t really change the story. On occasion, it replaces it completely.

Since the onset of the epidemic, scientists have focused on one particular aspect of the SARS-CoV-2 story: club-shaped spikes stick to the virus’ shell. It is the spike that allows the virus to hijack human cells. If we stick with the Harry Potter analogy here, the genetic code for Spike is like a whole chapter.

In VUI 202012/01, he reads the chapter differently.

The new variant contains eight mutations in the spike gene, known as N501Y, which effectively binds to SARS-CoV-2 human cells. In mice, this particular mutation was shown to make the virus more contagious and, in South Africa, this mutation has been associated with an increasing number, in combination with many others. Another mutation, 69–70del, has previously been seen in other coronavirus variants and was associated with mink-related outbreaks in Denmark.

X amount of luck

In her Saturday speech, Boris Johnson suggested that “may be 70% more variable than the older version” based on preliminary analysis by the UK’s New and Emerging Respiratory Virus Threats (NERVTAG) advisory group. The data behind this figure has not yet been published and relies on computer modeling.

But other scientists suggest that the increasing incidence in Britain may be due to a confluence of circumstances – fate or chance – rather than changes in the viral genome.

Raina McIntire, professor of global biodiversity at the Kiret Institute at the University of New South Wales, states, “There can now be a clear increase in transmission during the Christmas period due to human behavior and the increased movement and social interaction associated with it. “

In November, talk of “particularly timid tension” in Adelaide, South Australia sent the state into lockdown. A group of cases are showing that the virus was spreading more quickly, but later evidence showed that it was not more contagious or infection.

“This may be just another Adelaide event,” says Stuart Turville, an immunologist at the Kirby Institute. But, they say, answers will only come when scientists have a chance to test the new version in the lab, compared to previous versions and to see how it fares. “Until you get to that point, you can’t really say that the virus is fitter.”


The origin of this variant is still unknown, although NERVTAG has proposed that it may arise in a single patient over a period of several months with a compromised immune system. Inside the patient, the virus and immune system are constantly in an arms race, trying to leave each other behind and get the upper hand. In this environment, there is greater pressure for mutation. Constant fighting means “there is a high probability in the patient” the mutation accumulates, says Terville.

The number of changes in VUI 202012/01 will challenge researchers to explain whether a single mutation or a combination of them contributes to how this variant spreads or how severe it is. “Because there are so many different changes out there, it’s really going to be a difficult one to work out,” says Terville.

Researchers will assess these changes with a series of experiments Terville notes can take up to a few weeks. To test whether the variant is more communicated, they compare it to older strains in human cells in the laboratory or in animal models and see who dominates.

Broadcasting capacity is just the tip of the viral iceberg, however.

Alina Chan, a scientist at MIT and Broad Institute at Harvard, says, “The types of mutations that scientists have reported are a bit more concerned about vaccines, antibodies, therapeutics – rather than increasing the vaccine.

That evaluation requires a different type of test. Scientists hit the version with antibodies made by people infected with older versions of coronaviruses. If antibodies prevent variants from growing, then great – but if mutations of variants help to flush out antibodies, then we can deal with a defect that might reduce some of our defenses.

Although scientists and researchers differentiate VUI 202012/01 and determine how its genetic change has changed it, the message remains the same. “There’s really nothing to do about it in terms of public health,” Chan says. Social disturbances and mask wear are important to slow the spread of COVID-19. These measures are the gold standard and will continue to work against the new version.

It is too early to tell how the new version can change our public health message or whether it will now be a cause of concern for vaccines being rolled out worldwide. Experts say increased surveillance will be important, but our vaccines will not be rendered useless overnight.

“We have a version here or there a long way from a mutation, in fact we are very afraid that our vaccine is going to end,” McKay says.

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