- BBC World News
The spread of a new strain of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes covid-19, across the south of the United Kingdom has raised a question: will it render the vaccines already in use useless?
The British government confirmed on Saturday that the new variant of the virus – believed to be more contagious – is spreading rapidly across south-east England, prompting new restrictions and quarantines for the local population, in addition to dozens of countries have suspended flights to and from the UK.
Health authorities still they have no indication that the new strain is more lethal or causes more severe symptomss.
Experts assure that, based on the information available so far, this new variant will not disable the effectiveness of vaccines that have already been approved for mass use in the population.
“[Científicos] are taking this virus, this strain, they are culturing it in the laboratory to see if it can be eliminated or neutralized by antibodies taken from people who have had the natural infection or who have received the vaccine, “Soumya Swaminathan, head of scientists from the World Health Organization.
While waiting for the labs to indicate otherwise, Swaminathan believes, “it is highly unlikely” that the UK strain will disable vaccines.
A strain with 22 mutations
Of all viruses, including coronaviruses, new strains or variants are constantly emerging, something for which scientists developing vaccines are preparing.
In the case of the new strain of SARS-CoV-2 from the United Kingdom, virologist Wendy Barclay, from Imperial College London, explains to the BBC, they have been identified two dozen mutations in your genetic code, which is unusual.
“Normally we see that viruses differ from each other by one or two changes, but this one has a total of 22 at the same time, and that when they meet immediately generates a kind of alarm “, explains Barclay.
Part of the mutations are recorded in the protein S -call in Spanish spike or tip, O spike in English- which has the function of being the “key” of access of the virus to human cells.
“There are a number of those tip mutations that we think are very important in helping the virus get into cells very quickly, so we’re trying to get evidence to support that. But biologically, the virus may have changed the way it behaves due to those mutations, “Barclay says.
How can it affect vaccines?
Vaccines are used to activate a person’s immune system through different ways.
In the case of some developed for SARS-CoV-2 in a more advanced state (Pfizer or Moderna), scientists have designed them to that the human body reacts to a protein punta artificial.
When detected as an infectious agent, the body produces antibodies and these canin to be activated again if a natural contagion occurs.
Nick Loman from the Covid-19 Genomics UK Consortium tells the BBC that the mutation in the tip It “seems like an important adaptation” of the virus to achieve its goal.
However, the vaccine is also capable of attack different parts of the virus, so even if a part of the virus changes, vaccines should still work.
“But if we let it add more mutations, then we can start to worry,” says Professor Ravi Gupta of the University of Cambridge.
The challenge that comes after the appearance of strains like the one in the United Kingdom is know if those antibodies produced by the vaccine, and even those that infected people have already formed without a vaccine, maintain their ability to “see the virus” if you have a mutation.
The ineffectiveness of a vaccine occurs when the virus has changed so much that it dodges the full effect of the dose and continues to infect people.
If this point is reached, the researchers would have to reformulate the vaccines.
This is what happens with the flu vaccine, which has to be updated periodically. Fortunately, vaccines are easy to modify.
“Every year we update vaccines such as the flu, we are used to it. The important thing is to be able to detect these variants and, above all, those that could appear as an escape when the vaccine begins to be administered,” José told the EFE agency M. Jiménez Giuardeño, from the Department of Infectious Diseases at King’s College London.
What do the health authorities say?
After the alarm that has been generated in Europe by the new strain from the United Kingdom, the World Health Organization indicated this Monday that for now there is no evidence that the variant causes a more serious infection or affects the effectiveness of available diagnostic tests or vaccines.
The head of the unit against covid-19, Maria Van Kerkhove, pointed out that in the country a strain plus in South Africa that is not the same as the UK. And more are likely to appear.
“Science and governments are being very cautious about these new mutations, but at this point there is no evidence that they change the severity of the disease or the efficacy of diagnostics and vaccines“, said Director of Health Emergencies of the WHO, Mike Ryan.
For its part, the European Medicines Agency, which authorized the use of Pfizer’s vaccine in the European Union on Monday, considered it “very likely” that the vaccines would retain their effectiveness.
“At the moment, we can say that there is no evidence to suggest that the vaccine would not work against the new variant of the coronavirus. But we must all do our bit to prevent the spread of the disease: follow the advice of your health authorities, wear a mask, wash your hands and keep your distance“said the agency’s director, Emer Cooke.
“[Las vacunas] by themselves they won’t be the miracle solution to allow us to return to normal life, but this authorization is definitely a big step in the right direction and an indication that 2021 may be better than 2020, “he said.
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