When a virus infects and enters a host cell, it replicates itself, with the goal of spreading. In the process of doing so, it must copy its genetic material. Errors in this process of genetic material replication are commonplace, and often do not affect the virus. However, such mutations may accumulate as they are passed down through the lineage and consequently form a variant of the virus, which may have different characteristics and properties when compared to the original. Recently the topic of COVID-19 variants has been a popular area of discussion in news outlets, both local and foreign. However, with widespread misinformation and fear-mongering, what do you really need to know about these variants and what are we doing to stop them?
The SARS-CoV-2 is the virus behind the COVID-19 infection, and was first isolated and identified in January 2020. To date, a number of variants have arisen throughout the course of this pandemic. It is important to note that each variant may display different changes from the original, and may not all be more infective. The ‘Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’ (CDC) classifies these variants according to their impact, namely:
- Variants of Interest
- Variants of Concern
- Variants of High Consequence
As of yet, no variants of high consequence have been identified. These variants would be the ones where countermeasures would not be effective. Variants of interest are those which organisations keep an eye on, since with further mutation they may become more virulent. When we hear on the news that a new variant is spreading, this is typically referring to the variants of concern. Globally, five variants are of most concern.
- UK variant: which may be referred to as lineage B.1.1.7
- South African variant: Lineage B.1.351
- Brazil variant: Lineage P.1
- Indian variant: Lineage B.1.617.2
- Californian variants: Linages B.1.427 and B.1.429
These variants all have an increased ability to be transmitted between individuals, due to a variety of mutations in their structure and functioning. Moreover, they may have a reduced efficacy with vaccines and treatments for COVID-19. With this being said, what is being done to avoid this?
Variants are thoroughly monitored and tested to analyse their exact impact on treatment and infectivity, which provides a better understanding of the strategy needed. Although vaccines do not provide the same level of protection against variants, both Moderna and Pfizer-BioNTech are currently testing a third dose of their modified vaccines, which is to target these variants. In addition, Pfizer has recently discussed a variant-specific vaccine which may be developed soon.
But what can we do as citizens? In order to cope and emerge from this pandemic, we must all abide by the regulations set by the health authorities, including wearing facemasks when appropriate, respecting social distancing and also by taking the vaccine when it is our turn to do so.