By Anastasia Safronova, RT editor
There are many Covid-19 variations in various parts of the globe, prompting experts to question how long it will continue and how effective current protection measures really are.
Since the pandemic started in 2019, people have referred to the disease which has paralyzed the world simply as ‘coronavirus’. It is now 2021 and we don’t just mean the original, but its multiple mutations.
In May, WHO decided that the WHO would label key variants in Greek letters. The Delta strain has been declared the dominant strain in the world. Now we have labels that look similar to codes, which detail differences among variants. UK authorities were alerted to the rapid-growing Delta AY.4.2 variety last month. This week, Norway reported finding one more version of the Delta strain – AY. 63. The country’s experts suggest it’s not more dangerous than the Delta mutation itself. Meanwhile, another Covid variant, discovered in France (B.1.640), brought the researchers an unpleasant surprise: they said they’d never seen mutations like it.
Professor David Dockrell from the Center for Inflammation Research at the University of Edinburgh described to RT why the coronavirus is constantly evolving. “The areas in the virus that are most likely to change are those that come into contact with what we call ‘selective pressures’ – or factors that make them need to change,”He explains. “So, a version of the virus which mutates and changes to give it a selective advantage to escape from the immune system is more likely to prosper and become a dominant strain.”
That’s how it works: The part of the virus many of the immune responses (or antibodies, T-cells etc.) The spike protein (or S-protein) is the part of the virus that immune responses are directed to. The virus attempts to alter it to make sure that they survive.
“We know that a variety of different viruses are able to mutate and change when exposed to the selective pressure of the immune system, whether it would be the human immune system or other species in which these viruses have evolved,”Professor Dockrell. “And of course, we’ve seen it most clearly with HIV, which is particularly good at changing and evolving. It does something called ‘reverse transcription’ – it copies material in the reversed direction from DNA to RNA.”
Covid is still seemingly running faster than humanity’s efforts to curb it, but Prof. Dockrell has some good news. “The coronavirus – and viruses like it – are not as able to make these changes. They are going to do it to some extent, but they are not going to be as successful as retroviruses and HIV.”
And the other major thing to say: When the viruses make changes, there’s always what we call ‘a fitness cost’. The virus will not survive many of the possible changes it makes. There are only certain changes the virus could make before they start affecting its health.
Unfortunately, Covid19 is still at a stage where it can evolve and change. It’s not time to panic, though, because across the world various ways to adapt the current anti-Covid strategies are already in place. First of all, people should keep getting vaccines – maybe receiving slightly altered booster doses, Prof. Dockrell suggests, “in a way, that we, after all, have to do with influenza, by providing a seasonal influenza vaccine and changing it every year.”
“And maybe we have to keep changing some of the treatments like these new monoclonal antibodies against the virus, because they also may be limited by the emergence of a mutation of the virus evolving the S-protein,”He continues.
Sounds promising – but won’t it become a never-ending race against constantly emerging mutations?
I hope so. According to Prof. Dockrell, there are parts of viruses that scientists call ‘conserved areas’. These are the areas that vaccines and monoclonal antivirals will eventually target. “Clearly, the direction of travel is to develop either vaccine responses that affect more different kinds of virus, or these ‘monoclonal antibodies’ that we could use to prevent or treat infection, that they will target more conserved areas and therefore will be less limited by the ability of these virus to evolve and change,”He draws a conclusion.
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