While Coronavirus continues to wreak havoc in our lives, the new strain has spread panic among people not only in England but even outside. Scientists are working hard to track the origin of the new virus, but nothing has been confirmed yet. The even horrifying news is that the new virus is 56 per cent more contagious, as per the experts.
According to a recent study, the new virus is more contagious and can spread at a faster pace. An initial analysis of the new variant has been published and identifies17 potentially important alterations. There have been changes to the spike protein - this is the key the virus uses to unlock the doorway to our body's cells.Due to increased transmission, the number of cases is also going to go up. Experts fear that this can lead to more COVID related hospitalisation and deaths in the year 2021 as compared to the year 2020.
Where has it come from? The variant is unusually highly mutated. The most likely explanation is the variant has emerged in a patient with a weakened immune system that was unable to beat the virus. Instead, their body became a breeding ground for the virus to mutate. Does it make the infection more deadly?
Experts also said that easing the lockdown rules will prompt a large resurgence of the virus, which means it may become necessary to accelerate the vaccine roll-out to suppress the burden of the disease. The new strain of the COVID-19 virus was discovered in southeast England in November after which the British government imposed the restrictions in the UK and nearby areas.
With the new variant of the virus, the three most common symptoms of fever, dry cough and loss of smell and taste remain the same. But there are seven other symptoms that have been associated with the new variant. The symptoms include fatigue, loss of appetite, diarrhoea, headache, muscle pain and mental confusion. The mutation of the virus has made it easy to enter the human cells, which makes children more prone to getting infected and equally susceptible to the virus as adults. With the new strain in the picture, we might see more children getting infected with the virus.
Three things are coming together that means it is attracting attention: It is rapidly replacing other versions of the virus. It has mutations that affect the part of the virus likely to be important. Some of those mutations have already been shown in the lab to increase the ability of the virus to infect cells. All of these come together to build a case for a virus that can spread more easily. However, we do not have absolute certainty. New strains can become more common simply by being carried back to Bangladesh by anyone.
Another study showed the variant of the virus may be up to 70% more transmissible. How far has it spread?
However, just increasing transmission would be enough to cause problems for hospitals. If the new variant means more people are infected more quickly, that would, in turn, lead to more people needing hospital treatment.
Will the vaccines work against the new variant? Yes, at least for now. All three leading vaccines develop an immune response against the existing spike, which is why the question comes up. Vaccines train the immune system to attack several different parts of the virus, so even though part of the spike has mutated, the vaccines should still work.
If more mutations are added, then definitely it is worrying. This virus will be then on a potential pathway for vaccine escape, it has taken the first couple of steps towards that. Vaccine escape happens when the virus changes so it dodges the full effect of the vaccine and continues to infect people. This may be the most concerning element of what is happening with the virus.
For personal protection in the new normal life, we should continue to maintain social distancing, wearing a mask, and maintaining etiquette have to be the order of the day. If we can stop entering the virus from one to other it will die automatically. To protect anyone from reinfection one thing must be cleared. If you are once infected, everyone is not equally symptomatic. Antibody titre depends on virus load and gravity of symptoms. So if there is a lack of antibody, reinfection will be a probability.
This variant is just the latest to show the virus is continuing to adapt as it infects more and more of us. The virus will probably be able to generate vaccine escape mutants. That would put us in a position similar to flu, where the vaccines need to be regularly updated. Fortunately, the vaccines we have are very easy to tweak, is solace for the mind.
The writer is a gerontologist and a public health specialist. E-mail: email@example.com