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The Coronavirus is Mutating: What We Know About the New Variants

A few weeks ago, news broke that a more transmissible strain of the coronavirus, the B.1.1.7 lineage, has been circling around the United Kingdom. The strain, thought to be up to 70 percent more transmissible than the original strain, thrust the United Kingdom into a lockdown. And the B.1.1.7 lineage has already been detected in several locations in the United States.

On Jan. 4, South African health officials announced they, too, have detected a new, seemingly more contagious strain. It’s no surprise that the coronavirus has mutated — that’s what viruses do. Most mutations are useless, but every so often, a mutation will improve a virus’s ability to infect people.Given the swift spread of the new variants, experts suspect the new strains contain mutations that make it easier for the virus to bind to our cells.There’s currently no evidence the variants will affect the efficacy of the vaccines or cause a more severe illness.Still, more studies are needed to understand the mutations and the impact they could have on the pandemic

Viruses mutate frequently

All viruses mutate often. Typically, the mutations aren’t functional and have no significant impact on the behavior of the virus. As viruses mutate, their chance of survival increases. That is, the more diverse a species is, the more chances it has to survive, said Dr. Benjamin Neuman, a virologist at Texas A&M University Texarkana. “Mostly the changes are bad for each individual virus, but together, a population of weaker but more diverse viruses has a better chance of survival than the same sized population of identical viruses,” Neuman said.

Sometimes, those mutations can improve the performance of the virus, as we may be seeing with the new variants detected in the United Kingdom and South Africa. “Just like a good engineer can usually find a way to optimize a machine, mutations can change the speed with which parts of a virus work,” Neuman said.

Called the B.1.351 lineage, the new strain identified in South Africa is thought to be more transmissible. According to the World Health Organization (WHO)Trusted Source, the variant replaced other leading strains circulating around the Eastern Cape, Western Cape, and KwaZulu-Natal provinces in November. The strain has also been associated with a higher viral load, further suggesting it’s more transmissible than previous strains. Some medical experts have sounded the alarm that the variant could potentially be resistant to vaccines or medications.

There’s no evidence that suggests the new variant in South Africa won’t respond to the vaccines, experts say. Researchers will need to follow the variant to determine if it may reduce vaccine performance. One of the mutations involves the spike protein, the piece of the virus that binds to receptors in our cells. The vaccine immunizes people against the spike protein, which is why some infectious disease experts have expressed concern. But the vaccine induces a broad immune response that will likely be able to recognize and respond to most variants.

“I think it’s highly unlikely that there’s going to be a variant that the vaccine completely doesn’t touch,” said Dr. Ellen F. Foxman, PhD, an immunologist and Yale Medicine Laboratory Medicine physician. However, antibody treatment may not work as well if the virus has mutated, according to former FDA Commissioner Dr. Scott Gottlieb. Antibody treatment consists of using antibodies taken from people who had COVID-19 to treat new patients.