‘The virus is always searching for its next move’: why science is alert to new variants


Followers who follow coronavirus mutations we have spent a week exploring the details of the new version that was discovered this month in Botswana.

It is the latest in a growing line of more than 1,500 known strains of the Sars-Cov-2 virus to emerge since the plague began. Expressing concern about the threat of new species, the UK and Israel on Thursday evening imposed restrictions on travel to a group of southern African countries based on the dynamic nature of the new version of B.1.1.529.

The question of whether a particular type of contagious, highly fatal or vaccinated vaccine could be replaced a large Delta nation, which appeared in India late last year, and is one that keeps scientists and health officials vigilant.

“Has Sars-Cov-2 tested all its tricks? You have to be brave to believe this,” said Gavin Screaton, a medical doctor and head of the medical sciences department at Oxford University.

The problem is constantly changing: each repetition leads to new mutations in the 30,000 nucleotides that make up its genome.

In most cases, these mutations are eliminated, but everything comes with the full potential of the virus being sufficient, either to trigger the production of viruses, to bind easily to the cells in the airways or to escape the immune system.

In the face of Delta, the biggest threat came from Alpha’s rapid spread in the UK. Twelve species have been identified as “concerned” or “interested” by the World Health Organization and given Greek names, the most recent Mu species that appeared in Colombia in January.

Last month, British authorities began overseeing the Delta, which could be about 10 percent infected. Two other Delta natives, recently discovered in Canada and Indonesia, share similar traits.

“It hasn’t been a good thing since Alpha and Delta were released late last year,” said Emma Hodcroft, a geneticist at the University of Basel who was one of the first to follow the changes. “But the virus is always looking for its own way.”

There is no reason why the most dangerous type has not been identified, although experts agree that a global vaccination campaign has helped reduce mutations.

Before the vaccine was released, the virus was subjected to a “simple form of immunity” in which almost everyone suffered and “transmission was a simple success”, Hodcroft explained.

Now, with a global supply of more than 53 percent and about 30m jabs being shipped worldwide each day, the migration of the virus was “minimal and dry”. “It can be highly contagious or find ways to protect our immune system – or do both,” he said.

Some say that transmissibility is already in full swing. Francois Balloux, director of the University College London Genetics Institute, said R0 – the reproductive rate in high-risk populations – of coronaviruses circulating in Sars-Cov-2 before it was released at 7, following decades of natural selection.

Since the Delta has a R0 of between 6 and 7 – which is more than double that of the first Wuhan tribe – the larger tribes probably do not have “enough space to transmit in a short period of time”, he said.

Balloux predicted that Sars-Cov-2 would fall in a way that “gradually changes the immune system” over a decade and not “jumps constantly”. Similarly, a gradual mutation can be observed in colds and seasonal coronaviruses.

Digital health organization warns of diversity in Bolton, northwestern England © Oli Scarff / AFP via Getty Images

But scientists remain concerned about the sudden evolution of the virus, throwing a response to a global epidemic and the vaccine being eradicated.

The problem of B.1.1.529, which is spreading in South Africa and Botswana, has been worrying about this, because many of its 32 mutations are associated with the ability to escape the immune system and spread rapidly.

The World Health Organization (WHO) has convened an emergency meeting on Friday, in which it is expected that the event will be declared a day of reckoning, according to one source.

Tulio de Oliveira, director of the Center for Epidemic Response and Innovation in South Africa, said he was “concerned” about the difference and that it was the cause of about 90 per cent of the approximately 1,100 people enrolled Wednesday in Gauteng province. Unusually, he said, the problems can be identified by analyzing the results of routine PCR tests without the use of genomic sequencing.

“The question that needs to be answered is what exactly [variant’s] effects of vaccination, ”he added.

Slawomir Kubik, a geneticist at Geneva-based biotech Sophia Genetics, stressed that the “suitability” of diversity can only be measured by how it “spreads in the real world”.

“It’s about genetics, nature and other possibilities. . . If you have a positive but non-communicative change, it will not spread, ”he said.

Even if Botswana’s problems disappear, others will come out. Venky Soundararajan, a senior scientist at Nference, a data monitoring company, worries that the effects of the vaccine could be to force the virus to “genetic cul-de-sacs”, leading to “flight” that can flee the immune system.

“Vaccines are a transmitter to God in order to prevent disease and serious illness, but surprisingly they increase the need for us to monitor these specific changes,” he said.

Soundararajan warned that the subsequent unequal distribution of technology created “holes” in genomic analysis. More than 80 percent of the 5.4m Sars-Cov-2 genomes raised at Gisaid’s global repository come from only two continents: North America and Europe.

While no one can be certain when radical change will occur, there is a scientific consensus that the Delta will not remain permanently stable.

Kevin McCarthy, professor of Microbiology and Microgenetics at the University of Pittsburgh, said the evolution of the virus “is about to reach its peak” so the chances may be different.

“Are we going to move to a place where the virus mutates and undermines the effectiveness of the vaccine? I think it could happen,” she said.


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