The terms “mutations” and “mutations” are very worrisome and sometimes confuse. In the following, the highlights of what we know about them regarding the Covid-19 epidemic.
How many copies of the virus have mutated?
At this point, three mutated copies are of concern according to the World Health Organization: the one discovered in England, the one discovered in South Africa, and the third in Japan (this version was discovered in travelers from Brazil and from here it was called the Brazilian mutant).
These three mutants are found in 125, 75 and 41 countries, respectively, according to the World Health Organization. They are classified as “alarming” due to their increased transmissibility and / or severity, and thus lead to an exacerbation of the pandemic and make it more difficult to control, as defined by the organization.
The next category is the category of “interesting mutants”, which require monitoring because of their potentially problematic genetic characteristics.
Currently, the World Health Organization is monitoring three of them, first in Scotland, the United States and Brazil.
There are many other variables that the scientific community seeks to define and evaluate.
“The coming weeks and months will tell us whether (these mutants) will be included in the category of concern that is spreading very quickly or if they will continue to spread at their current low rate,” Etienne Simon Laurier, head of the virus evolutionary genome unit at the Institut Pasteur (Paris), told AFP.
All of these mutants are classified according to family or “lineage.” According to the modifications it has acquired, it occupies a specific place in the main family tree of SARS-Cove-2.
What is its impact?
The emergence of mutated copies of the virus is not surprising. It is a natural process because the virus mutates over time to ensure its survival. “More than 4,000 SARS-Cove-2 mutants have been identified around the world,” the British health services wrote on their website.
But the World Health Organization confirms that “most of them have no effect in terms of public health measures.”
It all depends on the mutations you carry.
Consequently, the British, South African and Brazilian versions each carry a mutation called the N501Y, which is suspected to make it more portable. The South African and Brazilian versions also carry another mutation called “E484K” that is suspected to lower immunity acquired either through previous infection (with an increased likelihood of reinfection) or by vaccines.
Because it is difficult for non-specialists to track down the technical-named mutants (for example, the British version is called “501 Y.V1” or “VOC 202012/01” and belongs to the strain of “B1.1.7”), so it has been named by country In which it appeared.
Therefore, the terms “British, South African, or Brazilian” are more understandable to people, but scholars do not like them as they consider it to bear the stigma of these countries.
There is consensus on this point regarding the three mutant copies of concern.
But that only relies on epidemiological data for now: researchers are watching how quickly these mutants can spread and conclude at which point they are most contagious.
Therefore, it is not possible to obtain a definitive figure because the results may differ based on the health restrictions in place in the areas where the mutants are prevalent.
For example, based on various studies, the World Health Organization considers that the British version of the Corona virus is 36-75% more contagious.
Several groups of researchers around the world are analyzing the biological properties of these mutants in an effort to find out why they are more contagious.
“There are hypotheses that need to be studied: the viral load may be higher, the mutant can enter cells more easily, or it multiplies more quickly,” Olivier Schwartz, head of the Virology and Immunology Unit at the Pasteur Institute, told AFP.
Researchers at Harvard University in the US put forward another hypothesis that the infection caused by the British version can last for a longer period: the infected person remains contagious for longer than the person infected with the regular virus, which may require an extension of the quarantine period.
But this kind of research takes time, so researchers will need weeks or even months to get definitive answers.
– The most dangerous?
This seems to be the case for the British rogue. A study published on March 10 concluded that this version is 64 percent more deadly than the regular Corona virus.
Among the thousand cases that were discovered, the British mutant caused 4.1 deaths, compared to 2.5 deaths caused by the regular Corona virus, according to this study published in the medical journal “BMG”, which confirms the first observations made by the British authorities at the end of January.
In addition, and based on other studies conducted in South Africa, the World Health Organization estimates that the South African version of the Coronavirus “increases the risk of hospitalized patients dying by 20%.”
How effective are vaccines?
According to several laboratory studies, the British mutant did not significantly impair the effectiveness of vaccines, but the Brazilian and South African versions seem to have a significant effect on vaccines due to the E484K mutation they carry.
However, the low effectiveness of vaccines against some variants does not mean that they are no longer effective at all.
On the other hand, these studies focus on one response of the body after vaccination, which is the production of antibodies. “It does not evaluate other types of potential immunity, such as the activity of T and B lymphocytes,” a recent article published in the specialized “JAMA” magazine by American health expert Anthony Fauchi said.
In any case, manufacturers are working on new versions of their vaccines specifically designed to combat the mutants. Moderna announced on March 10 that it had begun offering a new generation of its vaccine to a group of patients as part of a clinical trial aimed at evaluating its efficacy against the South African mutant.
This adaptation is necessary because “mutants that may be less affected by current vaccines … are likely to continue to emerge,” as the European Center for Disease Prevention and Control warned.
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