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  • Writer's pictureAlan Frischer, MD, MPH

Viral Mutation

We are still in the midst of this worldwide pandemic. Amazingly, scientists have developed a safe vaccine in record time. In my office, the doctors and staff have already received our COVID vaccinations.

We are all now hearing of a new mutated form of COVID-19. In December, it was announced that the variant, dubbed B.1.1.7, had accumulated 17 mutations and was spreading rapidly in the United Kingdom. It has now reached the USA. What are the implications for the pandemic? What does this mean regarding the new vaccines? What do these mutations change about the disease itself?

Please note this: Viruses mutate all the time. COVID is no exception, and mutates regularly, acquiring about one new mutation in its genome every two weeks. Many mutations are silent, meaning they cause no change in the structure of the proteins they encode. Other mutations may lead to structural changes. The key question is whether the virus mutates enough to be considered a significant deviation.

Here are the important concerns about any newly mutated virus:

Does it spread more rapidly?

Mathematical models suggest that this new mutation might be up to 70% more transmissible than the original virus. That could be because eight of the 17 new mutations on the B.1.1.7 variant are on the spike portion of the coronavirus shell, allowing it to more easily bind to receptors on the cell surface, and thus to infect the cell. (One source called it “stickier.”)

Does it cause a milder or more severe illness?

It probably does not cause a more severe disease, and at this point, does not appear to be any more fatal than the original virus.

Is it still susceptible to therapeutic agents such as monoclonal antibodies?

This new variant may affect the ability of some treatments currently in development against the virus. Time will tell.

Will the current vaccines still produce immunity?

The new vaccines do appear to be effective against this new mutation. For the virus to evade the vaccines currently in use, it would not only have to change significantly, but do so in a way that changes the way the virus functions. That has not happened to date. Even if the virus mutates that much, the major vaccine makers have the ability to modify their vaccines, and it could be possible to have a new vaccine in a matter of weeks.

For now, a more contagious COVID virus means that EVERYONE needs to take public health measures even more seriously, including social distancing and mask wearing. I urge you to become vaccinated with one of the new vaccines just as soon as you are given the opportunity. They are extremely safe and highly effective, protecting some 95% of us against COVID, even in the face of these new (and inevitable) mutations.

Let’s all do our part during this pandemic, and get past it as quickly as possible.

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