Though the new strain of coronavirus is found to have increased its capacity to spread rapidly, there is no evidence as yet that it has increased the death rate or rendered the vaccines ineffective. While the health machinery is continuing with its 3T strategy, experts advise people to stick to basic COVID-19 protocol – mask, personal hygiene and social distancing.
As people around the globe were thinking that the worst of the COVID-19 pandemic was coming to a close, a new mutant strain that was discovered in countries such as the U.K., Austria and South Africa, has brought the think tank in the health sector back to the table. Flights from these countries, including to India, have been stopped, and the health machinery in the State has become alert and gone back to the earlier system of testing, contact tracing and quarantining those who have come from those countries.
But the need of the hour is understanding the new strain and the issues associated with it and experts in the health sector say that there is ‘no need for panic’.
“The foremost thing that we need to know is that this mutant or new strain is a variant and not a different virus,” says District COVID Special Officer and Principal of Andhra Medical College P.V. Sudhakar.
This is the first variant of the virus which has been recognised and is being investigated. It has been named as VUI202012/01, where VUI stand for ‘variant under investigation’. The genome sequencing of the variant has revealed that the new strain has 17 variants and the notable among them is N501Y.
“In this variant, Asparagine, a non-essential amino acid, has been replaced by Tryrosine, another amino acid. Some amino acids such as Delta H69 and Delta V70, have been deleted and all these mutations have taken place in the spikes of the virus, thus increasing its spreading capacity by 70% more,” explains Dr. Sudhakar.
According to Dr. Hema Prakash from the Department of Microbiology, GITAM Institute of Medical Research and Sciences, RNA viruses are trickier, as they have the rapid propensity to mutate.
One such virus is the Influenza virus, which has the propensity to mutate very fast and every time it mutates it comes in the shape of a new pandemic with an entire new set of spike proteins.
In this case also the mutation has taken place in the spikes, she says.
In other words, through the mutations in the spikes, the new strain has strengthened its foothold. “It can now easily finds its way into human respiratory track or the ACE2 receptors through the oral or nasal mucosa and find its way to the lungs. It can also set its foothold on the blood vessels,” says Dr. Sudhakar.
If more cells are affected, more is the level of infection or the viral load.
Comparing the old and the new strain, Dr. Hema says, “If the particles in the old strain are 100, the new strain may go up to 800 and this increases its infection rate.”
The positive aspect is that there is no evidence to suggest that the new variant has increased the death rate or that the vaccines produced so far is not suitable.
So the strategy for vaccine administration or treatment does not change. “We must continue to adhere to the three basic COVID protocol aspects – wearing a mask, maintaining personal hygiene and keeping social distance,” advises Dr. Sudhakar. Coming to strategy, the 3Ts – testing, tracking and treating – will continue, he says.
Prof. Hemalatha from the Department of Microbiology, Andhra University, points out that the virulent factor of the new strain is yet to be ascertained and investigation is on.
Though the present methods of testing such as RT-PCR and Rapid Antigen hold good, to understand the strain the samples should be sent to institutes such as CCMB (Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology) or NIV (National Institute of Virology) for genome sequencing.
The experts say that depending on the condition of the patient or behaviour of the virus, the samples should be sent for genome sequencing, to ascertain the strain variant.
Coming to vaccines, it is now to be ascertained whether the vaccines developed are mRNA vaccines or spike protein vaccines. mRNA vaccines will address the genome of the virus and strengthen the overall defence system of the body by developing antibodies. But if they are spike protein vaccines, then the efficacy is doubtful, says Dr. Hema Prakash.