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Using cryo-electron microscopy, University of British Columbia researchers studying COVID-19 have revealed the structure of the N501Y spike protein mutant, shown above, in blue, bound to two copies of the ACE2 receptor, in red.Dr. Sriram Subramaniam/The Canadian Press

The first images of a mutation on a COVID-19 variant of concern have been captured by researchers at the University of British Columbia who say the photos offer some reassurance about how the virus strain may react to current vaccines.

The University of B.C. says the researchers are the first to publish structural images of the mutation found on one portion of the SARS-CoV-2 spike protein.

The spike protein is the part of the virus that opens the door to infection, while the mutation is the change believed partly responsible for the rapid spread of the variant first identified in the United Kingdom.

A team led by Dr. Sriram Subramaniam, professor in the department of biochemistry and molecular biology at UBC’s faculty of medicine, found the images show localized placement of the mutation allows it to enter human cells more easily.

The team’s analysis, recently published in PLOS Biology, reveals that, once inside, the mutation can still be sidelined by antibodies from current vaccines.

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Researchers say that adds to growing evidence that most antibodies generated by existing vaccines are likely to remain effective in preventing mild and severe cases of the B.1.1.7 variant.

The statement says its researchers are also using beams of supercooled electrons in powerful microscopes to visualize the detailed shapes of other COVID-19 variants that are 100,000 times smaller than a pinhead.

“It’s important to understand the different molecular structures of these emerging variants to determine whether they’ll respond to existing treatments and vaccines and ultimately find ways to control their spread more effectively,” the statement says.

Variants under study at UBC include those first identified in India, California and South Africa, as well as the P.1 variant of concern first found in Brazil, which along with the B.1.1.7 mutation has accounted for a growing number of infections in Canada.

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