THE COVID FAMILY OF MUTATIONS
As the Covid pandemic sweeps unrelenting across India with a national identity flagging the name ‘Indian variant’ many will be asking whether this is a virus produced in India or is it a variant that mostly affects Indians, or is it a virus that mutated after infecting Indians. In fact, it is none of these. What are variants, mutations and why do viruses get names after countries? We have the Hunan Virus, the Brazil variant, the English Variant ( or Kent variant), the South African variant, and now the Indian variant.
Covid-19 virus, like other viruses, is merely an RNA string with some protein coating. It is a gene. It only exists when it is in a living cell of another body. Viruses can be in humans, in animals, in insects, in amoebas, in bacteria, in plants, trees, in fact, any living thing. The virus needs a host to replicate and spread. That’s all they seem to do.
During replication, errors occur. These are mutations. Many mutations end up damaging the gene itself and it becomes ineffective. In some mutations, the gene becomes more effective and natural selection enables it to survive better.
All genes mutate from time to time as they replicate. Human genes in the cells also mutate. That’s how evolution happens. Viruses also mutate for many reasons. Mostly in a few million, some replications help genes to survive better. In the case of viruses, some mutations can help them to defeat the antibodies that may have been formed against them.
There are in fact thousands of variants of the Covid-19 Sars virus. Most of the variations are in those parts of the gene that do not do much. It is mostly variants in the so-called spike protein that are important. These spikes are used by the virus to push through into a host cell. Antibodies generally exist to disarm the spikes thus rendering the virus unable to get into a host cell to replicate. Antibodies recognise the spikes, latch onto the virus and help killer cells in the human immune system to engulf the whole virus. These killer cells, called macrophages dismantle the virus. Or antibodies recognise the spikes and make them useless.
Some mutations in the spike protein fool the antibody, thus the antibody does not recognise it. In some mutations, the spike protein is more efficient in getting through the host cell, thus getting in before an antibody gets to it. It is the genetic variations that significantly change the spike protein so that the antibody does not recognise or the spike protein is more lethal that really pose challenges.
Mutations can occur anywhere in the world. It’s where they are first decoded in significant numbers by scientists that the name of the country sticks. So the English variant could easily have happened in Italy or Sweden. But it was first decoded in England from Covid patients in Kent, United Kingdom.
The Brazilian variant was first decoded in numbers from patients there, as was the South African and subsequently the Indian variant.
The Indian variant also could have its origin anywhere. Indians do not need to be guilty about it. It’s just that India has decoding labs, so when the gene was broken down, it so happened the gene code was first to read in India or from patients in India.
What is a variant and what exactly do they do?
The technical names that scientists use are not country names. They are complicated and understood by virologists. Ordinary people will simply get confused.
Take the common variants.
THE SPANISH VARIANT
The first of the significant variants was the Spanish Variant. Its technical name is 20A.EU1. B.1.177. Its notable mutation is B.1.177. Remembering that in common language can be a memory feat. So it’s best to call it Spanish mutation. Although originally it was not thought to have any better transmissible power than the original Covid virus, when Europe lifted restrictions, this virus spread fast across Europe.
THE ENGLISH VARIANT
Technical name 20I/501Y.V1, VOC 202012/01, B.1.1.7 , the notable mutation is N501Y
Again a mouthful to remember. Better to call it the English or Kent variant. This has about 17 mutations. One of them N501Y in the spike protein helps the virus to bind more tightly to the cellular receptor. It is not the number of mutations in a variant that is important, but a couple of the mutations that make it more virulent. There are still studies going on on whether the English variant is significantly more able to spread than the original Covid virus.
Technical name 20H/501Y, V2, B1.3. The notable mutations in it are E484K, N501Y, K417N
This variant quickly became the dominant strain in South Africa. The N501Y mutation is like the European version although scientists think it arose independently. This means that the same mutation can arise in several parts of the world without people having transmitted it there. The more dangerous mutation in this variant is E484K that enables the virus to evade the immune system.
Technical B1.1.28, VOC 202101/02. 20J?501Y.V3, P1 with the notable mutation beings E484K, K417N/T, and N501Y
And another one VUI202101/01, P2. The notable mutation is E484K
Brazil seems to have had two main variants. Again some of the mutations it has are similar to ones in Spanish and UK. They are efficient in avoiding being recognised by antibodies.
Tech B.1.617 notable mutations are E484Q, L452R, P681R
The Indian variant has more than 11 mutations but two of the mutations make it particularly transmissible. That is why it is called double variant or double mutation. It is two dangerous mutations that are thought to help make it more transmissible and also capable of neutralising antibody response. This is a double attack. It is thought to overcome the immunity people may have built with a Covid infection last year. This mutation is thought to be 20% more transmissible than the original one and 50% more able to reduce antibody efficacy.
However, the Indian version is still being studied. It is concerning scientists that this variant also seems to occur in people who have been infected before.
WILL VACCINES WORK AGAINST THESE VARIANTS
The 3-4 main vaccines claim that they are effective against the variants. However, vaccines are constantly being updated. The booster shots that will be given later in the year are more likely to counter the variants.
The fact is that Sars Covid -19 Virus is here to stay. It’s done the original jump from animal to man. Although the coronavirus family of viruses does not mutate so fast and usually remains stable for a long time, the Covid-19 coronavirus is acting like a flu virus and mutating faster. So every few months a new variant is likely to be found and scientists along with vaccine manufacturers are going to be busy developing upgraded versions of the vaccines with new boosters