Another One? COVID Strains Keep Emerging… And Getting Deadlier

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A little more than 12 months ago, the first case of the coronavirus was detected in Wuhan, China. As the novel coronavirus surpasses 100 million cases worldwide, it’s safe to say that our lives have been altered radically. One step outside and you’re immediately surrounded by masked figures, empty streets, and social distancing signs. Though the coronavirus is neither the most contagious virus to infect humans nor the most deadly, it is still to be feared—it has caused one of the deadliest pandemics in history. It doesn’t help that more variants are emerging—ones that are more infectious, lethal, and may possibly render our only defense to the virus, the COVID-19 vaccines, ineffective. It’s the news no one wanted to hear: the coronavirus has mutated into more virulent emerging strains.

The virus never stops mutating. As it spreads from person to person, it acquires random mutations that change its structure and behavior. Currently, there are several thousand COVID variants circulating the globe, but three new variants in particular have caught the attention of health officials: B.1.1.7 in the U.K., B.1.351 in South Africa, and P.1 in Brazil. While previous mutations only had minor changes that did not concern researchers, there is preliminary evidence that these variants behave differently, and are thus far more deadly.

The B.1.1.7 variant, which emerged in late September, dominated the U.K. in late December, accumulating nearly two-thirds of overall cases. In a recent study conducted by Public Health England, the U.K.’s leading science advisory group, the B.1.1.7 variant has substantially higher transmissibility and a 30 percent higher mortality rate. This is accredited to the strain’s 17 mutations within its spike proteins, the component that allows the virus to penetrate cells and initiate infection at the cellular level. These mutations allow the protein to easily attach to our cells, letting the virus reside in the upper respiratory tract instead of deep within the lungs. This means that more particles are prone to escaping when an infected person coughs or speaks. Scientists also suggest that the B.1.1.7 variant causes infected patients to have higher viral loads, or produce more viral particles, which leads to more severe disease and a greater risk of death. The B.1.1.7 variant has spread to over 60 countries, including the U.S., where it is said to be circulating in at least 26 states. Leading researchers predict this variant may dominate the U.S. by March.

Similarly, the B.1.351 in South Africa poses a threat due to its numerous mutations in the spike protein. The variant caused recent peaks in South Africa’s daily cases and deaths, surpassing previous highs set during the first wave in July. South African researchers have suggested that the variant infects nearly twice as many people within a given period compared to normal strains, as it leads to infections among the different strains in South Africa and has spread to at least 22 other countries. This strain poses a serious threat due to two key mutations: E484K and N501. The E484K mutation helps to disguise the virus, allowing it to bypass existing antibodies produced from prior infections or vaccination. The N501 mutation allows the virus to bind more tightly to the host cell. All in all, these changes make the virus more transmissible while making the antibodies less effective in neutralizing the B.1.351 variant.

Additionally, the P.1 variant caused the same number of deaths in Manaus, Brazil, in a span of one month that the U.K. variant did over three months. This suggests that the P.1 variation exhibits similar mutations to the B.1.351 and B.1.1.7 strains, which conceal it from immune response and prevent antibodies from neutralizing it. The variant also contains more spike proteins on its surface, allowing it to attach more firmly to host cells. The new outbreak increased Brazil’s death toll to over 219,000, only second to the U.S., a nation with nearly one and a half times the population of Brazil. The U.S. found its first case of the P.1 variant in Minnesota.

While these new strains have raised alarm, the vaccines developed by Moderna and Pfizer have given us hope of ending this pandemic. Despite this, the pandemic is continuing to worsen, regardless of the measures put in place. Another COVID-19 variant has been discovered in Los Angeles, California, and is said to be responsible for two-thirds of LA’s one million cases in the last two months alone. These resurgences may show that our best answer, the vaccine, may no longer be adequate.

The vaccine may not provide much relief, as these strains have reinvigorated the spread of COVID-19. Normally, a vaccination grants active immunity because the immune system produces antibodies that last an entire lifetime. However, these new strains all have the ability to disguise themselves such that the antibodies cannot recognize and eradicate them, raising questions over the efficacy of the vaccine against emerging strains. However, Moderna says tests have concluded that the COVID-19 vaccine offers some protection against the new variants, specifically the B.1.1.7. However, their vaccine produced far fewer antibodies against B.1.351, suggesting the acquired immunity would eventually wane. In response, Moderna is developing a booster shot that would specifically target B.1.351 and even combat P.1. Meanwhile, Pfizer released a statement that their vaccine protects against B.1.1.7 as well, though its effectiveness against the other strains is yet to be determined.

Though cases and hospitalizations have declined in the U.S., the new strains may easily reverse this progress and aggravate the pandemic further. In response, our government has implemented stricter mitigation measures, such as public mask-wearing and stay-at-home orders, and distributed more tests and vaccines. Recently, President Joe Biden signed a travel ban, in an effort to mitigate the spread of the novel strains as well. However, doing your part in stopping the spread is significant now, more than ever. Wearing higher filtration masks in public, such as the N95 mask, getting tested, socially distancing yourself, and frequently washing hands are simple tasks, yet they are pivotal in ending this pandemic once and for all.