I mentioned it briefly yesterday, but today we’re wading in on what we know about Coronavirus mutations, if they affect the effectiveness of our vaccines, if they make the virus more deadly, and if these mutations are common.
What do we know about Coronavirus mutations? Are Coronavirus mutations common?
Let’s start with the basics. Every time a cell reproduces, it has the potential to mutate. Viruses are no exception. Subtle mutations happen all the time, and causes range from a tiny glitch in its system that’s exacerbated by reproducing billions and billions of times, or even just from being that one little virus that survived some form of treatment or immune response and is just a little bit more resistant because of it. According to the New York Times, “Most mutations that arise in the coronavirus are either harmful to the virus or have no effect one way or another.”
But, that isn’t always the case.
What’s special about the UK COVID mutation?
The UK mutation of the SARS-CoV-2 virus, the one we all casually call the Coronavrius, has been given a title of B.1.1.7. It was first found in early December to have caused about half of the cases of a virus surge in the city of Kent, in southeastern England. Within two weeks, it’s spread had caught enough attention to cause travel advisories or restrictions in the Netherlands, Belgium, Germany, Italy, and more. Part of the concern is that this variant of the virus doesn’t just have one mutation – it has 23 mutations from the most common Coronavirus we’ve all been following.
Does the Coronavirus mutation spread more easily?
Patrick Vallance, the Chief Science Advisor for the Government of the United Kingdom detailed out in a press conference that the UK mutation of Coronavirus appears to be about 70% more transmissible than other versions. It was originally found to be 26% of London cases in November and had grown to 60% by the second week of December.
UK Coronavirus strain and children
It’s super important to note that scientists believe the B.1.1.7 strain makes children equally susceptible to catching the virus, while that wasn’t the case with previous versions. That’s incredibly dangerous, because schools have largely been protected by how children have been less-impacted. If this strain continues to spread, it’ll be less and less likely that schools have any possibility of reopening fully until this is all over.
Is the mutated Coronavirus more deadly?
There isn’t enough data yet to say whether this new mutation of the virus is more or less deadly than what we’ve been dealing with so far. What we do know is that one of the mutations in this version of the virus is shared with a strain in South Africa which was found to cause a higher concentration of the virus in the body, which can imply more severe COVID-19 symptoms.
Are our vaccines still effective against the COVID mutations?
While there isn’t any evidence that currently-known Coronavirus mutations change the effectiveness of the Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna vaccines, there is some concern. The vaccines trick our immune system into making antibodies which attach to the coronal protein spikes of the virus, and eight of the 23 mutations found in the B.1.1.7 variant affect the way the virus grows the proteins the antibodies target. This could be problematic if the changes to the proteins continue and they, at some point, are no longer a fit for the antibodies our immune systems are creating.