UK COVID-19 mutation – what does this mean for the new vaccines

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Many of you have heard about the new mutation seen in the UK to the SARS-CoV-2 virus that causes COVID-19. Of course, once we hear a story about a mutation to the novel coronavirus, our first thought “does that mean the vaccines won’t work?”

It is a legitimate concern for any of us, so I wanted to give you a quick article that should allay our fears, for now. However, as with anything during this pandemic, what we know today may be out-of-date in a week.

So should we worry about the UK COVID-19 mutation? Let’s see. 

What is the UK COVID-19 mutation?

Let’s start by saying what it isn’t – it is not a new super dangerous version of the SARS-CoV-2 virus that causes COVID-19. This isn’t the Captain Trips of coronaviruses. 

Mutations occur frequently with coronaviruses as they replicate, and this SARS-CoV-2 variant, B.1.1.7, has its own distinct set of these mutations.

The COVID-19 mutation probably arose in the UK in September, and once it was found, scientists quickly examined it. This B.1.1.7 variant has a very large number of mutations, 23, that it has acquired. Generally, mutations in viruses are either harmful to the virus, so they cannot reproduce and infect others, or it has no effect. 

©New York Times, 2020. By Jonathan Corum | Source: Andrew Rambaut et al., Covid-19 Genomics Consortium U.K.

In the case of the UK variant, a number of the mutations appear as if they could vastly increase the speed at which the virus can spread to others. Neil Ferguson, an epidemiologist at Imperial College London, estimates that the variant has an increased transmission rate of 50 to 70 percent compared with other variants in the United Kingdom. And it may affect children more than other SARS-CoV-2 variants.

It is unknown where this variant arose, it could have been in one individual or through a known or unknown animal reservoir

Despite that, there is no evidence that face masks, social distancing, and other1q mitigation methods are ineffective against the new strain. Transmission is still reduced by those methods.

There is also no evidence that the variant is more dangerous, other than being more transmissible and potentially infecting more people. Once infected, the outcomes for patients with the B.1.1.7 variant are no different than patients who have contracted other variants. Of course, this may change.

We don’t know if this COVID-19 mutation has spread beyond the UK (and South Africa), so many countries have banned travel from there. Of course, if the infectiveness is as high as suspected, it will eventually move across the world.

The World Health Organization (WHO) has cautioned against major alarm with respect to this new variant. WHO emergencies chief Mike Ryan stated:

We have to find a balance. It’s very important to have transparency, it’s very important to tell the public the way it is, but it’s also important to get across that this is a normal part of virus evolution.

Being able to track a virus this closely, this carefully, this scientifically in real-time is a real positive development for global public health, and the countries doing this type of surveillance should be commended.

Right now, the evidence seems to indicate that the new UK COVID-19 mutation is not a serious concern at this time. If it is as infectious as is claimed, that could make it more dangerous by infecting more people in an area more quickly, which will tax medical services even more. 

However, it does not appear that the variant has a higher mortality rate itself, so that’s good. Scientists will continue to find and observe the effect of new variants, so stay tuned.

UK COVID-19 mutation

Will vaccines remain effective against this variant?

I don’t have a solid science-based answer to this question, so I’ll hit a few points. As opposed to many of the ridiculous myths about the mRNA vaccine pushed by conspiracists and anti-vaxxers, this concern may actually be legitimate.

Let’s review what we know and don’t know point-by-point:

  1. Most of the new vaccines, including the Pfizer and Moderna mRNA vaccines, target the S-protein, or the spike, on the virus. The reason for this is that it’s the easiest part of the virus to induce an adaptive immune response. Many of the 23 mutations affect the S-protein, but at this time, it does not appear that they will cause the immune system to not recognize the spike.
  2. Several research centers are analyzing the mutated S-protein to determine if there are any concerns about how it may interact with the immune system.
  3. Both Pfizer and Moderna are both testing their vaccines against the new variant. For example, Pfizer is examining how well blood samples from vaccinated individuals neutralize the new UK COVID-19 mutation. 
  4. One of the advantages of mRNA vaccines is that if the S-protein changes substantially so that it can “hide” from the immune system, both Moderna and Pfizer can isolate the code for that new S-protein, producing new mRNA to be used in vaccines. And because it is only a minor change to the vaccine, it should get very quick approval without clinical studies from the FDA and other regulatory agencies (much like the seasonal flu vaccine).

Despite all of this, we should not dismiss the concerns about whether this new variant will render current vaccines are ineffective against it. In addition, it may mean those who contracted earlier variants of the disease may not be immune to variant – this is another reason to ignore the genocidal desires of those who want to get herd immunity without vaccines

Vaccine manufacturers, scientists, public health specialists, and governmental agencies across the world continue to be wary of COVID-19. As they should be.

This is another reason to reject the belief that we’re out of the woods and the pandemic is coming to an end. Very few people have received either the Moderna or Pfizer vaccines, and it’s going to be many more months before enough people are vaccinated to have a herd effect. Of course, there may be a mutation that is here or coming that renders the vaccines useless, and we’re back to square one.

That’s why until this disease becomes background noise, which may never happen, you need to wear a mask, stay away from large groups of people, wash your hands, and isolate somewhere. 

This new UK COVID-19 mutation may or may not be worrisome, but it would be prudent to just assume that a bad mutation will appear someday soon.

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The Original Skeptical Raptor
Chief Executive Officer at SkepticalRaptor
Lifetime lover of science, especially biomedical research. Spent years in academics, business development, research, and traveling the world shilling for Big Pharma. I love sports, mostly college basketball and football, hockey, and baseball. I enjoy great food and intelligent conversation. And a delicious morning coffee!