“Out of Control Mutant Strain” has a nice science-fiction horror movie ring to it, like the pandemic version of the 1953 classic It Came from Outer Space.
Before we totally freak out about the snappily named VUI-202012/01 that is making headlines, however, let’s keep a few important details in mind: 1) There is no evidence it is more deadly; 2) it is unlikely to make treatments less effective; 3) there is every reason to believe that vaccines will work just as well against the new variant; 4) the claim that it is 70-per-cent more transmissible is largely speculative, based on modelling; 5) we don’t know how prevalent this mutation is already.
Tracking mutations of the coronavirus is important scientific work, especially when we’re dealing with a pandemic virus that has already infected at least 77 million people and killed 1.7 million.
But mutations happen all the time – there have been one to two mutations to the coronavirus every month since it emerged – and most are inconsequential. Some of these variants generate media attention, such as the D614G mutation that emerged in Europe in February, the A222V mutation that came out of Spain, or the “Cluster 5” mutation that spread from minks in Denmark. (The terms “strain” and “variant” are used interchangeably but a strain implies a different virus while a variant makes it clear that it’s the same virus, but with mutations.)
There are groups such as Nextstrain that track these changes meticulously, based on the more than 3,500 virus genomes that have been decoded to date. Britain has some of the most sophisticated genomic sequencing surveillance in the world; Canada, not so much.
What raised a red flag was surveillance around London. The new variant was first spotted in September, but by October it accounted for 28 per cent of cases, and 62 per cent by the end of November.
That this variant became so dominant so quickly is what suggests that it spreads much more readily. But more infectious doesn’t imply more deadly.
Scientists also caution that there are many unknowns. Some variants come to dominate in various parts of the world by fluke, because of superspreader events.
The soaring number of coronavirus cases in Britain – and the capital London in particular – suggest that public-health restrictions are not being heeded, regardless of variants.
But back to the science for a moment.
What has scientists worried about the new variant is that 23 mutations happened at the same time, which is unusual. More concerning is that some of the mutations change the spike protein on the surface of the coronavirus.
The spike is what allows the virus to enter and infect cells. Dr. Kiki Sanford, host of the TWIS (This Week In Science) podcast, likens it to a key for a lock that opens the door into our bodies and says the mutations make the key more effective.
The good news is that it’s still the same key.
The vaccines that have been developed to date prevent the spike proteins from latching onto cells and entering them. So, if these spike proteins have been altered by mutations, will vaccines stop working?
While the spike protein is being altered a bit, it will likely still be recognizable – the way you can recognize someone’s face even if they get a new haircut or have a scar. The vaccines can also be tweaked.
The public has become engaged in scientific research more than ever before. That’s great. But we can’t let each scientific advance transmute into pandemic porn. When you engage in constant doomscrolling of the news, it can be alarming.
What we really need to do with this story is step back a bit and reflect on what it means for the evolution of the pandemic and to our daily lives.
Assuming for a moment that this new variant does spread more readily, it serves as a timely reminder that we need to heed public-health warnings.
Coronavirus spreads when people interact, and especially when they do so incautiously.
So, stay home if you’re sick, wear a mask, avoid crowds, don’t gather (especially indoors), and get vaccinated when it’s your turn.
You don’t need to be a molecular geneticist to protect yourself against coronavirus, regardless of its variant.
If this “out-of-control” variant is what it takes for politicians to start taking coronavirus seriously – imposing stricter travel bans and lockdowns – then so be it.
But let’s not forget that the pandemic is getting ever worse not because of biology or genomics, but principally because of human behaviour.
This may be a horror movie, but it’s largely one of our own making.
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