Published: 21st December 2020
Researchers say it would take years, not months, for virus to evolve enough to render current vaccines impotent
Muge Cevik, an infectious disease expert at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland said that these mutations may allow the variant to replicate and transmit more efficiently
As the new variant has been surfaced that causes COVID-19, experts urged caution, saying it would take years, not months, for the virus to evolve enough to render the current vaccines impotent. They added that no one should worry that there is going to be a single catastrophic mutation that suddenly renders all immunity useless.
According to The New York Times (NYT), scientists are worried about these variants but are not surprised by them. Researchers have recorded thousands of modifications in the genetic material of the coronavirus as it has "hopscotched across the world."
"Some variants become more common in a population simply by luck, not because the changes somehow supercharge the virus. But as it becomes more difficult for the pathogen to survive -- because of vaccinations and growing immunity in human populations -- researchers also expect the virus to gain useful mutations enabling it to spread more easily or to escape detection by the immune system," NYT reported.
"It's a real warning that we need to pay closer attention,"said Jesse Bloom, an evolutionary biologist at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle and added, "Certainly these mutations are going to spread, and, definitely, the scientific community -- we need to monitor these mutations and we need to characterize which ones have effects."
The American daily further reported that The British variant has about 20 mutations, including several that affect how the virus locks onto human cells and infects them. Muge Cevik, an infectious disease expert at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland said that these mutations may allow the variant to replicate and transmit more efficiently.
She added that the estimate of greater transmissibility is based on modeling and has not been confirmed in lab experiments. "Over all, I think we need to have a little bit more experimental data... We can't entirely rule out the fact that some of this transmissibility data might be related to human behavior," she said. Scientists in South Africa said that human behavior was driving the epidemic, not necessarily new mutations whose effect on transmissibility had yet to be quantified.
"No one should worry that there is going to be a single catastrophic mutation that suddenly renders all immunity and antibodies useless," Dr. Bloom said and added, "It is going to be a process that occurs over the time scale of multiple years and requires the accumulation of multiple viral mutations... It's not going to be like an on-off switch." While many countries have suspended air travel from the UK, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo urged the Trump administration to ban travel from the UK in the US.
'Scientists fear the latter possibility, especially: The vaccination of millions of people may force the virus to new adaptations, mutations that help it evade or resist the immune response. Already, there are small changes in the virus that have arisen independently multiple times across the world, suggesting these mutations are helpful to the pathogen," the NYT reported.
"The mutation affecting antibody susceptibility -- technically called the 69-70 deletion, meaning there are missing letters in the genetic code -- has been seen at least three times: in Danish minks, in people in Britain and in an immune-suppressed patient who became much less sensitive to convalescent plasma," it added.
It was reported that scientists initially thought the new coronavirus was stable and unlikely to escape vaccine-induced immune response, said Dr. Deepti Gurdasani, a clinical epidemiologist at Queen Mary University of London. "But it's become very clear over the last several months that mutations can occur," she said. "As selection pressure increases with mass vaccination, I think these mutants will become more common."The new strain of Covid-19 is "out of control", said UK Health Secretary Matt Hancock on Sunday. Chief Medical Officer for England Chris Whitty on Saturday called on the nation to remain vigilant as a recently discovered variant of coronavirus was rapidly spreading.