How concerned should we be about the new Covid variant?
We’re back in familiar territory – growing concern about a new variant of coronavirus.
The latest is the most heavily mutated version discovered so far – and it has such a long list of mutations that it was described by one scientist as “horrific”, while another told me it was the worst variant they’d seen.
It’s still early, and verified cases are primarily confined in one South African province, but there are signs that it may have spread elsewhere.
There are immediate concerns about how quickly the new variation would spread, its capacity to circumvent some vaccine protection, and what should be done about it.
There is a lot of speculation, but there are very few clear answers.
So, what do we know?
The variety is known as B.1.1.529, and the World Health Organization is expected to assign it a Greek code-name (like the Alpha and Delta variants) on Friday.
It’s also been incredibly mutated. Prof. Tulio de Oliveira, director of South Africa’s Centre for Epidemic Response and Innovation, said the variant had a “unique constellation of mutations” and was “quite distinct” from other versions that had spread.
“This variant did surprise us, it has a big jump on evolution [and] many more mutations that we expected,” he said.
In a media briefing Prof de Oliveira said there were 50 mutations overall and more than 30 on the spike protein, which is the target of most vaccines and the key the virus uses to unlock the doorway into our body’s cells.
Zooming in even further to the receptor binding domain (that’s the part of the virus that makes first contact with our body’s cells), it has 10 mutations compared to just two for the Delta variant that swept the world.
This level of mutation has most likely come from a single patient who was unable to beat the virus.
A lot of mutation doesn’t automatically mean: bad. It is important to know what those mutations are actually doing.
But the concern is this virus is now radically different to the original that emerged in Wuhan, China. That means vaccines, which were designed using the original strain, may not be as effective.
Some of the mutations have been seen before in other variants, which gives some insight into their likely role in this variant.
For example N501Y seems to make it easier for a coronavirus to spread. There are some in there that make it harder for antibodies to recognise the virus and might make vaccines less effective, but there are others that are completely new.
Prof Richard Lessells, from the University of KwaZulu-Natal in South Africa, said: “They give us concern this virus might have enhanced transmissibility, enhanced ability to spread from person to person, but might also be able to get around parts of the immune system.”
What are the other variants?
How many cases are there in the UK?
Why has the Delta variant spread so quickly in UK?
There have been many examples of variants that have seemed scary on paper, but came to nothing. The Beta variant was at the top of people’s concerns at the beginning of the year because it was the best at escaping the immune system. But in the end it was the faster-spreading Delta that took over the world.
Prof Ravi Gupta, from the University of Cambridge, said: “Beta was all immune escape and nothing else, Delta had infectivity and modest immune escape, this potentially has both to high degrees.”
Scientific research in the lab will provide a sharper picture, but monitoring the virus in the real world will provide answers more swiftly.