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Everything You Need to Know About COVID-19 Variants

Viruses, such as SARS-CoV-2, which causes COVID-19, are always mutating. SARS-CoV-2 is already changing its spikes' shape to overcome the defences of human immune systems battling against it. Variants are identified when there is a change in a minor portion of a virus's genetic code. This occurs when a virus contains enough mutations. Some changes resulting in the variants are concerning because they can easily attach themselves to human cells, making them more transmissible. Other variants, such as the Brazil variant, raised doubt over the effectiveness of herd immunity.

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B.1.1.7 or 20I/501Y.V1 Variant (U.K.)

This variant first appeared sometime in September of 2020. It was also the first variant to draw lots of public attention after U.K. researchers determined that it was up to 70 percent more transmissible due to 22 coding changes in the virus genome. Officials said more than 60 percent of new cases in London were from this variant by late December. Researchers in the U.K. also found that further analyses were suggesting an increase in disease severity in those infected with this specific variant, making it a "realistic possibility that infection with (Variant of Concern) B.1.1.7 is associated with an increased risk of death." This variant has already spread to many countries worldwide, including Canada.

B.1.351 or 20H/501Y.V2 Variant (South Africa)

Around mid-December, South African authorities reported this variant after health authorities

found it was spreading quickly in three provinces, which rapidly took over as the main variant. Initial studies show that this variant has a higher viral load, meaning it could be more infectious than earlier variants. Although there is not enough evidence stating it causes more severe illness, some scientists are concerned about this variant because it targets healthy cells. Several countries have started to identify this variant, whereas, in Canada, there are several cases found in B.C. and Ontario.

P.1 Lineage or 20J/501Y.V3 Variant (Brazil)

This variant was first detected in early December in Manaus, Brazil. What worries scientists about this variant is that it has caused an outbreak even more deadly than the first destructive one last spring and is spreading at a much faster rate than that of the U.K. variant. Evidence indicates that mutations in this variant could influence antibodies' ability to recognize the virus from either a previous infection or from vaccination, according to the U.S. CDC. Another possibility suggested that by the time this variant has appeared, immunity to disease may decline. This variant was first found in Minnesota in the United States in late January; however, it has yet to be identified in Canada.

'Cluster 5' Variant (Denmark)

According to the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control, various mink strains have spread the disease to hundreds of people in Denmark. Mink infections have been identified in several countries in Europe, the United States, and Canada. However, some Danish scientists had expressed concern about the 'Cluster 5' variant that was found last fall in minks in Denmark, worrying that this had eventually led to the mass culling of up to 17 million minks or Denmark's whole population of minks. Early studies also found this variant could reduce an individual's immune protection period after infection or vaccination, resulting in future vaccines being less effective against it. According to the WHO, this variant was only identified a dozen times in humans in Denmark. The country states that this specific mutation was "most likely" eradicated.

D614G Variant

This variant appeared in late January to early February of 2020. It was first identified in Europe and Australia as a mutation of the original SARS-CoV-2 strain in China. By June of 2020, this strain became the dominant type of the virus circulating worldwide. Studies showed that it was more contagious and more easily transmissible than the original, but it did not make people sicker, according to Nextstrain and the WHO.

Vaccine Effectiveness

Researchers are still debating whether the new variants may decrease the efficacy of first-generation COVID-19 vaccines. Some vaccine developers are introducing plans to update their shots to target better-emerging variants, like the South Africa and Brazil variants. These lineages contain mutations that appear to reduce the impact of antibodies required to fight off infection.

Researchers are currently considering that COVID-19 vaccines may need to be continuously updated, such as influenza vaccines. The safest and most urgent way to tackle the danger of new variants is still probably to rapidly vaccinate as many people as possible with current shots. As Mani Foroohar, a biotechnology analyst at the investment bank SVB Leerink in Boston, Massachusetts, says, "We need to get vaccines in our arms and to smother this virus before it blows up in our face again." Foroohar and others predict that a group of new vaccines will emerge in the future to combat the variants of COVID-19 head-on.

Should We Be Worried?

Stuart Ray, vice chair of medicine for data integrity and analytics at John Hopkins University, says, "Most of the genetic changes we see in this virus are like the scars people accumulate over a lifetime — incidental marks of the road, most of which have no great significance or functional role." Ray also says, "When the evidence is strong enough that a viral genetic change is causing a change in the behaviour of the virus, we gain new insight regarding how this virus works."

While pharmaceutical companies are working on coronavirus treatments, we must continue to adhere to public health protocols to reduce the spread of COVID-19 in any way we can. "In the meantime, all of our efforts to prevent viral transmission and to vaccinate as many people as possible and as soon as possible need to be continued," says Ray.


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Article Author: Tanya Kor Article Editors: Valerie Shirobokov, Maria Giroux