The spread of COVID-19 from China to the rest of the world has prompted governments to take extraordinary public health and safety measures to curb its spread. These efforts were mandated as a stopgap measure until experts came out with a viable vaccine against the virus.
Currently, vaccines are being rolled out across the globe, with cases declining by 16% worldwide. However, the virus has mutated, creating new variants that may be even more dangerous to the public.
Viral Mutation Explained
As viruses replicate, they also undergo mutations. These mutations occur as random “copying errors” within the virus’s genetic material—either DNA or RNA—leading to changes to its surface proteins, known as antigens.
Normally, these mutations are minor enough that they don’t significantly affect the way the virus works, such as the speed of transmission or the severity of the infection. Some of these mutations may even further weaken the virus. Occasionally, there will be mutations that help the virus copy itself or hijack cells more easily. Other mutations significantly change the virus’s antigens, making them unrecognizable to the body’s immune system.
COVID-19 Mutations: The New Variants
The UK variant (B.1.1.7)
The UK variant (B.1.1.7) was first identified in September 2020, causing a surge in cases in London by November of the same year.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported that this variant of the virus is spread more easily and quickly than other variants. Scientists from the UK released a statement in January 2021, associating this variant with an increased risk of death.
Reports from Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna suggest that their vaccines are highly effective against this variant of the virus.
The South Africa variant (B.1.351)
First detected in October 2020, the South Africa variant (B.1.351) soon became the dominant variant in cases detected in the Eastern and Western Cape provinces of South Africa. While it shares some mutations with the UK variant (B.1.1.7), the South Africa variant developed independently.
Both Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines were observed to have a decreased ability to neutralize the South Africa variant. Pfizer and BioNTech subsequently announced that an updated vaccine or booster shot would be in development.
The Brazil variant (P.1)
The Brazil variant (P.1) is a resulting branch from the reported B.1.1.28 variant first identified in Japan in four (4) travelers from Brazil during routine airport screening. The mutation in this variant may aid the virus in evading the antibodies of a person’s immune system, making it more infectious.
The Brazil variant’s potential ability to evade antibodies—generated either from a previous infection or vaccination—can make vaccines less effective or provide a less strong or long-lasting immune response.
The California variant (B.1.429)
First observed in July 2020, then later again in October, the California variant (B.1.429) went on to account for 35% of all COVID cases in the state by January 2021. The identified mutations in this strain are believed to make the virus bond and enter healthy cells easier. However, the full extent of this variant’s effects is still unclear.
Currently, scientists believe that the available vaccines may be less effective against this variant, with more studies needed to better understand the variant.
The hybrid variant (B.1.1.7 UK + B.1.429 California)
This hybrid variant is a combination of the UK variant (B.1.1.7) and the California variant (B.1.429), which may be responsible for the new wave of cases in Los Angeles.
This “recombination” of variants may pose a larger threat, as multiple mutations can be brought together in one go as a consequence of the process. Multiple mutations do not always end with more advantageous features for the virus, but there is a chance they do.
Experts believe that while the hybrid virus may be resistant to some antibodies, there is no conclusive data on how dangerous it is.
What to do to protect yourself from the new variants?
Wear the appropriate mask, and layer if possible
Given that COVID-19 is still spreading through infected droplets, masks are still essential for protection against the virus. While cloth masks can offer some protection, a properly sealed surgical mask or certified N95 mask is more effective at filtering the virus.
If proper surgical or N95 masks are unavailable, wearing multiple masks can provide better protection. This can even be done with proper masks, like placing a surgical mask under a cloth mask or an N95 under a cloth mask. Consider double masking when going to high-risk areas such as groceries and hospitals.
Practice proper and frequent handwashing
Virus-laden respiratory droplets and particles can land on anything—doorknobs, handles, product boxes, elevator buttons, and so on. Touching these surfaces and then touching one’s nose or mouth can lead to infection through fomite transmission.
While this is not the main mode of transmission for the virus, it can still be a potential risk. Proper and frequent handwashing such as before meals, after coming from a public place, before touching your face or mouth, and after using the toilet, can lessen the risk.
If soap and water are not available, disinfecting with at least 60% alcohol-based hand sanitizer can be an alternative.
Maintain physical distancing
Sneezing, talking, coughing, and yelling are just some ways that droplets can be transmitted by a person infected with COVID. Inhaling these droplets or having the droplets land in another person’s eyes, nose, or mouth can result in infection.
Maintaining physical distancing, or staying at least six (6) feet away from people outside of one’s home helps lessen the chances of these droplets being inhaled or reaching the sensitive membranes of the respiratory tract where the virus can attach itself.
Avoid crowds and non-essential travel
One of the simplest yet biggest ways one can avoid being infected or spreading the virus is to cut down on non-essential travel and outings. Crowds are especially risky as large gatherings of people may increase the chances of encountering someone infected. The virus is also more likely to spread between people in close proximity, especially in indoor areas or among those without masks.
Keep traveling to public places and spending time with people outside of one’s home to a minimum. Avoid crowds, especially within enclosed and poorly ventilated areas.
Get vaccinated as soon as possible
The current vaccines have been formulated to build an immune system response to the virus, including variants with minor mutations. Frontliners and essential workers should be prioritized to protect themselves and those around them.
While other demographics may not be on the top of the list during current vaccine distribution, it pays to be ready to receive it once available.
Keep Ahead of COVID-19
Virus mutations occur as a result of their natural replication process and also their evolution, emerging from errors when replicating genetic material. While these mutations may not always affect the virus in a major way, they can still be some cause for concern since they could spread faster.
As scientists learn more about the COVID-19 mutations, the public will still need to be cautious with regard to the spread of the virus.
For any concerns about COVID-19 and other infectious diseases, contact Makati Medical Center today.