How did the new strains of the coronavirus that causes Covid-19 come about?


Some of the new SARS-CoV-2 strains have altered spike proteins (pink in this 3D scan of the virus), which may make current vaccines less effective. — Reuters

I keep hearing and reading about the new Covid-19 strains, and how we must be extra cautious with them. But I am not really sure what they are - could you explain them to me?

The new strains are variants of the SARS-CoV-2 virus.

A new variant was first identified last December (2020).

They came about because there was a mutation to the coronavirus’ genes.

Why did the coronavirus mutate? Is it extra “smart”?

SARS-CoV-2 is an RNA (ribonucleic acid) virus, and it is their nature to mutate, evolve and gradually change

Some RNA viruses mutate faster than others, and we are still learning about the SARS-CoV-2 virus.

If the same RNA virus is located in different areas or countries that are separated from one another by a large distance, the viruses in each area tend to mutate on their own, resulting in different geographical variations.

The flu virus is one of the most studied RNA viruses, and they tend to mutate very quickly.

That is why you have to get a new flu vaccination every year.

What are the different SARS-CoV-2 virus variants?

Well, we first discovered the first variant of SARS-CoV-2 in Wuhan, China, in 2019. (What a year it has been since!)

After that, there were multiple variants.

In September (2020), one such variant was discovered in south-east England, which was called B.1.1.7.

Maybe this is because England, as part of the United Kingdom, is separated from the rest of Europe by the English Channel (i.e. different geographies).

This superspreading variant quickly became the most common SARS-CoV-2 virus in the whole of the UK.

As of December (2020), it accounted for 60% of all new cases in England.

After that, other variants began to be discovered in South Africa, Brazil, California in the United States, etc.

So you have a variant from the African continent, the South American continent, the North American continent, etc.

New variants are apparently being discovered every week.

However, most of them have less significant genetic mutations and will disappear by themselves soon enough.

The ones you have to be more worried about are the variants that persist for a long time.

How are the variants different? Do they look different?

Yes. B.1.1.7. itself has 17 genetic changes from the Wuhan SARS-CoV-2 variant.

The spike proteins on its outer coat – which enable the virus to attach itself to our cells – look different.

The B.1.1.7. variant seems to be able to bind itself more tightly to our cells, hence making it “stickier”.

It appears to be more contagious as well.

Other variants have other differences about them too.

Oh dear. If the variant is “stickier”, is it more dangerous to humans?

It certainly spreads faster from one person to another.

But there is no evidence that it causes a deadlier disease, or more complications than usual.

You see, just like the flu virus, the truly “smart” evolved viruses don’t really want to kill you.

There would be no advantage if the virus kills its host so quickly that it cannot be spread to other hosts.

For example, the Ebola virus and the SARS-CoV virus from two decades ago were not too “smart” and the outbreaks were more easily contained within their own areas and snuffed out.

The truly smart viruses mutate frequently to spread faster and to infect more and more people.

Think of the virus as a webpage that wants you to purchase something from them.

They want to “reach” as many people as possible through the Internet!

The virus also mutates to “escape” current therapies and vaccines, as well as the antibodies a previously infected person might have produced.

And it will continue to mutate.

This means that the Covid-19 vaccinations may have to become a yearly affair, like the flu vaccine, with the vaccine having to be modified each year to “keep up” with new strains.

It also means that even if you had been infected, you may get Covid-19 again from the other SARS-CoV-2 variants.

If there are new variants spreading around, do I have to do anything differently?

Some governments are taking measures to prevent the new variants from coming into their countries, such as banning flights from the UK and South Africa.

But the world is so interconnected that it may be ultimately difficult to prevent this entirely.

Still, it is to be applauded that they are trying.

As for you and me, we have to still take all the precautions we are currently being advised to follow, i.e.:

  • Wear a face mask when we go out
  • Limit going out
  • Avoid large gatherings, especially for the upcoming Chinese New Year
  • Work from home
  • Practise frequent handwashing and sanitising.
Will the vaccines that we are going to get work against these new variants?

There are some vaccines that are going to be effective against certain variants, and others that are not.

It is still too early to tell.

So it is possible that you may have gotten a certain vaccine against a certain variant, and still get infected by another variant.

Therefore, it is very important to keep your eyes glued to the news and scientific evidence that is, and will be, coming out.

And possibly plan to get a Covid-19 shot every year, or more frequently, depending on what the science dictates.

Dr YLM graduated as a medical doctor, and has been writing for many years on various subjects such as medicine, health, computers and entertainment. For further information, email starhealth@thestar.com.my. The information contained in this column is for general educational purposes only. Neither The Star nor the author gives any warranty on accuracy, completeness, functionality, usefulness or other assurances as to such information. The Star and the author disclaim all responsibility for any losses, damage to property or personal injury suffered directly or indirectly from reliance on such information.

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