Before anything else, let us tell you this: Viruses mutating over time is normal. Since it was first detected in Wuhan, China, COVID-19 has undergone several genetic changes and transformed into different variants that have been documented globally.
The thing is, not all mutations of the virus cause great concern or make a difference in its behavior. An example is the case of COVID-19 contracted by farmed minks in Denmark, which was detected from August to September 2020. Although there were 12 reported cases of its transmission to humans, the mutation didn’t seem to cause the virus to spread widely. But a mutation starts causing concern when a strain shows way too many changes, especially signs of being more contagious.
The United States’ Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) counts two rapidly spreading new variants of the virus first found in the United Kingdom and South Africa. There is also another strain in Nigeria that has already been detected but is still being monitored, as evidence has yet to point to its increased spread unlike the two previous strains.
Here’s what we know so far about the new strains and the questions that are still unanswered.
Variant VOC-202012/01 or 501Y.V1
The official report of the World Health Organization (WHO) states that a new COVID-19 variant was identified by authorities of the United Kingdom (UK) of Great Britain and Northern Ireland via genome sequencing on Dec. 14, 2020. “The variant is defined by the presence of a range of 14 mutations resulting in amino acid changes and three deletions,” said WHO. It was named VOC-202012/01, and the CDC reported that this variant seems to have “more efficient and rapid transmission” due to an N501Y mutation.
The virus’ N501Y mutation signified an alteration in an amino acid within the six key residues in its spike protein’s receptor-binding domain, which it uses to enter and bind with cells in a person’s body. Initial findings show that its transmissibility has an estimated increase of 40 percent to 70 percent.
Where it has been found so far: the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, Spain, Sweden, Canada, Switzerland, Denmark, Germany, Italy, Japan, Lebanon, Singapore, Australia, United Arab Emirates, India, South Korea, Finland, Pakistan, the United States, Belgium, Chile, Brazil, Malta, Norway, Portugal, China, Taiwan, Iceland, Ireland, Israel, Jordan, Hong Kong
South Africa first announced the detection of another strain on Dec. 18. By then, it was already rapidly spreading in three provinces: Eastern Cape, Western Cape and KwaZulu-Natal. The strain is called 501Y.V2 because of the same N501Y mutation detected in it. But according to reports, variant 501Y.V2 seems to be even more transmissible and has more mutations in the spike protein than the one found in the UK.
More studies are being made about this strain, but some experts have already expressed higher concerns and more uncertainty over it compared to the VOC-202012/01 variant.
Variant detected in Nigeria
There seems to be fewer information and findings about this new COVID-19 variant detected in Nigeria as of now, but according to Africa CDC director John Nkengasong, it comes from a lineage separate from the current variants found in the UK and South Africa.
“At this time, there is no evidence to indicate this variant is causing more severe illness or increased spread of COVID-19 in Nigeria,” said CDC.
Questions left unanswered
Perhaps the biggest question right now about these new strains is how they affect the vaccines already developed by several companies against COVID-19. The possibility of immune pressure and other variants created through escape mutants are among the top concerns if the new strains do have the ability to evade the currently-developed vaccines, especially if the vaccines are already administered into the population’s majority.
But right now, there’s no evidence that the new strains can do that. “Both vaccination against and natural infection with SARS-CoV-2 produce a “polyclonal” response that targets several parts of the spike protein. The virus would likely need to accumulate multiple mutations in the spike protein to evade immunity induced by vaccines or by natural infection,” said CDC. Scientists can also tweak the vaccines. This would, however, probably warrant new approvals and clinical trials.
Currently, there are no findings that show any of these new variants causing more severe illness or an increased risk of death. Scientists have yet to figure out how these strains respond to medicines currently being used for people infected with COVID-19.
But that shouldn’t be a reason for complacency, because the reported higher transmissibility of the new variants means they can spread faster—resulting in even more cases and hospitalizations.