Countries UK, Brazil, and South Africa are seeing major spikes in the number of deaths due to Corona Virus and its new Covid-19 variants are found in recent days. There’s another thing that these countries have in common though, all three are known to have unique new Covid-19 variants. Officially the B.1.1.7 variation in the United Kingdom, 501.V2 variant in South Africa, and P1 variant in Brazil. Despite originating in these countries it is clear that these variants are spreading around the world with reports of them in a whole bunch of countries.
So, if these new Covid-19 variants are spreading and it is these new tougher variants of the virus that we need to defeat going forward, then we ought to be taking a deep look at them.
The B.1.1.7 variant or the UK variant of the virus is certainly different from the original variant. The first case of the new variant was discovered on the 20th of September in Kent but was announced publicly in December ultimately resulting in the government locking down much of the country over Christmas. The hope was that this will prevent those in the South East from carrying it around the country when visiting friends and family over Christmas.
That is because as of mid-December the variant really was localized in the South East of England with two-thirds of all new cases in London being the new variant compared to only five percent in the North West. Despite these late attempts to try and suppress the spread of the virus, it has now been able to spread throughout the country and even the world, with the variant found in 55 countries globally as of January 20th.
This is pretty worrying because the new variant is certainly more dangerous than the original variant. Initial research found that the UK variant is between 30-70% more transmissible than the original one which is a big concern ad could lead to significantly more rapid spread. The variant is able to become more transmissible because it contains N501Y mutation which makes the virus more able to spread.
This is probably why the variant has been more successful at spreading around the world and why the CDC estimates that it is likely to become the dominant strain in the U.S. by March. The good news is that vaccines still appear to be effective against this new strain of the virus.
The first case of the 501.V2 variant or the South Africa variant in October with the government officially announcing it on December 18th. Around the same time, the UK variant was publicly announced. Also like the UK variant, the SA variant of Covid-19 contains the N501Y mutation, the mutation that makes the virus more transmissible. While there aren’t any clear figures about how much more transmissible this mutation is, it is reasonable to assume the numbers will end up being similar to the UK variant.
The SA variant also has two additional mutations though the most worrying of which is E484K which is thought to help the virus evade antibodies to some degree. This is likely to change how effectively the body can fight off the virus, how long the immunity lasts, and most worryingly the effectiveness of vaccines.
Early research from Pfizer and Moderna show that vaccines are still effective against this strain despite the E484K mutation. But the vaccines may be less effective than they were against the initial virus. With Moderna reporting that the vaccine-elicited antibodies were less effective at neutralizing this mutation in a laboratory dish.
It is also been suggested by South Africa’s health minister that the new coronavirus variants may affect young people more than the initial variant did. However, based on current research it is not totally clear whether young people have a higher propensity to catch it or if they are just more likely to catch it because of its increased transmissibility.
Let us move on to the Brazilian variant of the virus, officially known as the P1 variant. There are actually a few different variants that are said to have emerged from Brazil but the main one is the P1 variant. It has been described as a variant of concern. This variant was first announced in January of 2021 when Japanese researchers found it in people who had recently visited Brazil.
Although it is suspected that it’s been around for significantly longer perhaps even since last summer. Due to the recent announcement of the new Covid-19 variants, we don’t know much quite as much about it as we do the other two. However, we do know that it contains both the N501Y mutant and E484K mutant which means it is likely to be more transmissible and potentially more resistant to antibodies and vaccines.
There is a serious concern that because this variant makes a dozen or so changes to the virus’s spike protein the antibodies which have been developed by exposure to the vaccine or the initial variant might not recognize this new Brazilian variant, potentially leading to the same people being re-infected.
Those are the three main new Covid-19 variants that are out there. However, that does not mean that there aren’t any other variants. With other variants like L452R appearing in Denmark and California, it is also no coincidence that all of these variants have been found out by larger and richer nations. Fighting Covid-19 is incredibly hard and expensive so it is often only the more prosperous nations who are properly able to sequence the viruses spreading within their borders.
Countries like the United Kingdom were able to identify these variants relatively quickly due to the scale of sequencing and scientific knowledge available in Britain. It is, therefore, possible that there are other new Covid-19 variants somewhere else in the world that are yet to be detected.
Ultimately though we need to pay attention to these new Covid-19 variants as their proliferation and their spread could make handling the virus more difficult due to them being more transmissible and even more difficult if vaccines and antibodies end up being less effective against them.
Time will tell how impactful these new Covid-19 variants will end up being but for the moment we need to keep following the scientific knowledge we have available to us as well as following local guidelines wherever you are.