As if a "novel" new pandemic virus isn't enough, now we hear there are new variants that are spreading like wildfire around the globe. What should we make of these variants and what does it mean to us Earthlings? Information is evolving rapidly but here is what we know today.
The Coronavirus genome is made up of 30,000 "letters" of RNA. These genetic instructions help the coronavirus multiply and spread when they infect human cells. As the virus replicates, small errors known as mutations arise naturally. Some mutations help the virus and through natural selection, these mutations are passed down from generation to generation, while non-helpful mutations simply die out.
In late November, 2020 the experts noted the Coronavirus B.1.1.7 variant in the United Kingdom. This variant has now been detected in over 50 countries, including the U.S. and it has developed a number of mutations. It is important because it is estimated to be roughly 50% more transmissible and it may become the dominant variant of the Covid-19 virus by March. It does not cause more severe disease but more people can catch it. The mutations in this variant work by changing the shape of the coronavirus spike, which the virus uses to attach to cells and slip inside. Another mutation makes it harder for antibodies to stick to the coronavirus. Scientists are running experiments to find out the effects of each mutation of the B.1.1.7 variant.
There are other variants that have been identified that also increase spread. Some help the Covid-19 spike latch on more tightly to human cells. Some mutations seem to do nothing at all and will probably just disappear. One variant known as D614G may have helped the virus spread more easily in China and, in fact, the B.1.1.7 lineage comes from this early variant. (Fascinating, right?)
Because these variants are more contagious, it is extra important for us to wear masks and keep social distance until the virus dies out. Our current surge is probably a result of people letting down their guard too soon and the increased transmission of the virus as the new variant spread. Scientists are in the labs across the globe tracking all the variants and mutations and seeing how our treatments and vaccines are working against them. (WE LOVE SCIENCE)
Heres the good news: The current Pfizer and Moderna vaccine are still effective against these mutations because they target the entire spike protein and experts believe the virus would have to evolve for years with many more mutations before they could evade the vaccines. We may need boosters or new vaccines in time, like we do for influenza but for now these vaccines offer protection.
Take that! Covid!