Coronavirus

Can the covid-19 vaccines fight the new strain?

Mutations in viruses are extremely common, but the new variant of covid-19 first spotted in the UK appears more contagious. So what about the vaccines?

Can the covid-19 vaccines fight the new strain?
DIBYANGSHU SARKAR AFP

Virus mutations in general are nothing unusual or particularly worrisome. Most viruses mutate quickly, accumulating changes in their biology as they replicate. Copying genetic code perfectly is hard (and it’s pretty important NOT to do it perfectly - if organisms did it perfectly there would be no evolution…no new coronaviruses but also no dolphins, no birds, no humans) and when you multiply as many times as a virus does, you pick up a lot of errors also known as mutations. Those mutations allow viruses to adapt quickly to changes in their host environment. Most mutations actually scupper a virus’ effectiveness in making us sick, some are neutral and others will even help it spread.

Covid-19: thousands of unremarkable mutations

By July 2020 over 12,000 mutant versions of covid-19 had been identified, according to the New Scientist, though there will be tens of thousands more versions that differ by just a single mutation. Overall any two covid-19 coronaviruses (SARS-CoV-2) will only differ by fewer than 30 mutations and are considered as belonging to the same strain.

What’s different about the new strain VUI 202012/0?

The now infamous new strain, which was first identified in England, has 17 mutations that affect the shape of the virus. According to Nick Loman at the University of Birmingham in the UK, who monitors and sequences coronaviruses many of the mutations have been seen before, but it’s rare to see them all together. The new variant is called Variant Under Investigation (VUI) - 202012/01 or alternatively, lineage B.1.1.7.

The new variant was first found in the US on 29 December in Colorado.

It has since been found in up to 33 countries.

Will the covid-19 vaccine remain effective against the new strain?

Sharon Peacock, director of COG-UK said in the British Medical Journal that “with this variant there is no evidence that it will evade the vaccination or a human immune response. But if there is an instance of vaccine failure or reinfection then that case should be treated as high priority for genetic sequencing.”

The three leading vaccines create an immune response to the spike protein in covid-19 that gives it its name, and the new variation does have mutations to this protein. However, the vaccines produce antibodies against a number of areas on the spike protein, meaning a single change would be unlikely to affect efficacy. In addition the most effective vaccines can be easily tweaked if a variant of the virus begins to evade the immune response.

Over time, as more mutations occur, the vaccine may need to be altered. This happens with seasonal flu, which mutates every year and the vaccine is adjusted accordingly.

Is the new covid-19 variant more dangerous?

We don’t know for sure yet. Mutations that make viruses more infectious don’t necessarily make them those infected sicker. The information available on the latest strain of covid-19 doesn’t suggest that it results in a more severe disease.

Susan Hopkins, joint medical adviser for NHS Test and Trace and Public Health England, said, “There is currently no evidence that this strain causes more severe illness, although it is being detected in a wide geography, especially where there are increased cases being detected.”