It’s a new year but coronavirus is showing no signs of slowing down, unfortunately. In fact, it’s mutating.
The new B.1.1.7 strain that made headlines two weeks ago is theorized to have originated in the UK, though the research published thus far suggests that it’s on its way to becoming a globally dominant variant.
Reports were quick to note that contracting this new sequence would not impact disease severity and that there’s no reason to believe that it’s more resistant to targeted therapeutics or inoculation than previously reported strains.
However, before this clarification could have any impact, Dr. Anthony Fauci of the US Coronavirus task force alerted health officials to a new strain out of South Africa called, 501.V2.
Not only is 501.V2 more contagious than other coronavirus strains, but it also may be able to blunt the effectiveness of contact tracing—in addition to causing more severe illness. Unfortunately, Dr. Fauci believes the new strain may already be in the US.
“I would be surprised if it were not already in the United States, but you never know until you find it, and then prove it’s here,” Fauci explained to Newsweek. “If by some chance it’s not already in the US, it’s inevitable that it’ll come to America as people begin to move more freely between countries again. Sooner or later it will get here.”
Moreover, the UK strain, which is said to be 70% more transmissive than previously reported strains, is less transmissive than the South African variant.
Currently, the UK strain is in 30 countries, including the US. Both variants circulating in the US concurrently could spell disaster for an already turbulent winter.
“The South Africa variant seems even more easy to transmit than the new variant we’ve seen here [in the U.K.].” British Health Secretary Matt Hancock explained. “Harder to deal with than the U.K. variant.”
Sunday Omilabu, director of the Centre for Human and Zoonotic Virology at the Lagos University College of Medicine and Teaching Hospital, is one of the first academicians to detail 501.V2’s transmissibility.
According to Omilabu, a person infected with the South African strain can pass it along to up to five people before reaching viral clearance. This estimation reflects the highest rate of coronavirus transmission recorded thus far.
“The variants discovered in the UK and South Africa, they are distantly different from the variants discovered in Nigeria,” Omilabu added. “What we could say clinically is that we have more people coming down with severe signs and symptoms.”
Just like living organisms, viruses benefit from natural selection over time. The longer a virus exists within a community the more sophisticated its pathogenesis becomes.
A populated gene pool helps some strains develop resistance to drug treatment. Others take on quicker transmission rates. This process is said to occur very quickly in RNA viruses compared to DNA viruses.
Although the majority of public health officials contend that coronavirus mutations are to be expected, the development of deadly strains can be curbed by limiting the number of people the virus gets exposed to. The more cells the novel coronavirus injects, the better it gets at doing it.
Right now, SARS-CoV-2 is mutating roughly every two weeks. Thankfully, all reasoned analysis suggests that the clinical resources on deck are effective against the variants documented thus far.
“The emergence of new COVID-19 variants is common. However, those with a higher speed of transmission or potentially increased pathogenicity are very concerning. Crucial investigations are underway to comprehensively understand the behavior of the new mutant virus and steer response accordingly,” concluded Dr. Matshidiso Moeti, WHO’s regional director for Africa.