The Good & Bad News About the New Coronavirus Variant.
Coronavirus is mutating. We have known that since the beginning, but recent news about the highly contagious variant of COVID-19 spreading throughout England might be causing some of us to panic. While the bad news regarding this situation may be evident, there is some good news.
The Good News:
Our immune system remains a much more formidable adversary to Covid-19. Despite the dozens of variations that the coronavirus has mutated to, it will still be difficult for the virus to escape our body’s natural defenses- especially with the help of a vaccine. One virologist at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York described it as, “you have a thousand big guns pointed at the virus… No matter how the virus twists and weaves, it’s not that easy to find a genetic solution that can really combat all these different antibody specificities, not to mention the other arms of the immune response.”
Further, while the virus is mutating seemingly quickly, it is expected that it will take years for the coronavirus to escape immunity. Even the pesky influenza needs 5-7 years to mutate enough to get around our body’s antibodies. And recent studies have demonstrated common cold variants of coronavirus need several years to escape immune detection.
Other good news includes the fact that the technology used for Covid-19 vaccines by Pfizer and Moderna is much easier to update and adapt than conventional vaccines. You can read about that here. The Covid-19 vaccines also garner a massive immune response, so it may take years for the coronavirus to mutate enough for the vaccines to no longer be effective.
The Bad News:
There is nothing we can do to stop the mutation of Covid-19 as it continues to spread, even with vaccines and growing immunity in the human population. All pathogens gain useful mutations as the environment becomes more difficult for their survival. It's part of natural selection. The British Covid-19 variant in the news today, has around 20 variants that allow the virus to replicate and transmit more quickly and efficiently.
Scientists estimate the new variant is 50-70% more transmissible than the original virus. But this statistic is only based on modeling and has yet to be confirmed in lab experiments. Some researchers point to human behavior as the cause of the very rapid spread. This new variant has already appeared in South Africa, but scientists attribute human actions to driving the epidemic, not necessarily new mutations regarding transmissibility that have yet to be fully proven.
The mutation we need to be most worried about is called the 69-70 deletion, which directly impacts antibody susceptibility. The 69-70 deletion means there are missing letters in the genetic code- which renders it foreign to our antibodies. But, this mutation has only been seen three times to date- in Danish minks, in people in Britain, and in an immune-suppressed patient.
It's not time to stop being vigilant. We are all ready to get back to "normal" life, to hang out casually with friends, eat inside a restaurant, and hold large family get-togethers, but unfortunately, we aren't there yet. Even with the vaccine rolling out, it will likely take months before the general population has access to it.
The light at the end of the tunnel is growing near, but for now, keep wearing your mask and keep being safe to ensure you make it out on the other side.