First, it was the UK, then South Africa, and now the US and Japan. The variants of the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus seem to have a greater transmission capacity, although not a greater lethality and could lead to a new scenario in this pandemic that has plagued the planet for a year now
As in early 2020, scientists are trying to analyze what the appearance of these new variants means for the control of the pandemic, especially now that there are already vaccines available for covid-19.
The appearance of variants, such as the one in the United Kingdom, explains Isabel Sola, from the CSIC’s National Center for Biotechnology, “means that there has been some kind of selective pressure on the virus that has forced it to mutate and change.” Alone, one of the people in Spain who knows the most about coronavirus and who together with Luis Enjuanes works on the development of a vaccine against covid-19, explains that for a virus to evolve there must be something of an “advantage” and make it “more competitive against other viruses». In the end, he says “the variant with the most advantages will prevail.”
But those changes, he warns, do not make that variant per se more lethal or transmissible, nor do they compromise the efficacy of existing vaccines. ‘The relevance of these variations remains to be determined. They don’t mean anything until we have more information, ”he says.
«RNA viruses [como el coronavirus] they mutate a lot, there are already more than 100 variants identified from SARS-CoV-2 ”, explains Alberto Delgado-Iribarren, head of the Microbiology Service of the San Carlos Clinical Hospital in Madrid. «But if there are no conformational changes in protein S [espícula], vaccines will continue to be effective. ‘
“The greatest danger is that a variant is generated that escapes the vaccines,” says María Tomas, Microbiologist at the Hospital de A Coruña, and spokesperson for the Spanish Society of Infectious Diseases and Clinical Microbiology (SEIMC).
So far, the changes carried by these variants do not compromise the efficacy of the vaccines. “The approved vaccines, and available already in Spain, generate polyclonal antibodies, that is, they are directed towards a wide spectrum of protein S”.
Thus, a study still in prepublication confirms that the immune responses induced by the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine are effective in neutralizing the SARS-CoV-2 mutant N501Y, the mutation shared by the variants that emerged in the United Kingdom and South Africa. «The message of this article is that vaccines could be effective against these variants», Says María Tomas.
“At the moment there is no need to be alarmed,” says Delgado Iribarren, who does not rule out that in a few years, it is possible that a variant will appear “that escapes vaccines, but we don’t know that ».
And if that happened, it wouldn’t be such a worrying situation either, says Isabel Sola. «The technology with which RNA vaccines for coronavirus have been designed allows for easy reformulation». It is the great advantage of this technology, says Delgado Iribarren, and “it will allow us a much quicker response if, in the end, such an elusive variant arises.”
However, some countries, alarmed by the new variants, have accelerated the vaccine authorization processes. But, as the new variant appears in other countries, or others emerge in other places like the US or Japan, many scientists are asking governments to strengthen existing control measures as well.
When British Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced tough new restrictions on January 4, including school closings, he demanded that citizens not leave their homes unless strictly necessary. But, until that date, the United Kingdom, for example, did not force the use of a mask abroad and neither did children.
“We cannot put all the blame on the virus,” acknowledges the CNB expert. «The human factor in the spread of the coronavirus is decisive. A virus is how it is and what its host is like ”, he says.
This is the line of María Tomas: “It is possible that the measures have not been sufficiently restrictive and have been able to favor the appearance of these new variants.” And he underlines, «until there is a 60-70% percentage of the vaccinated population, we must continue to be very responsible. Even today, many people still take the infection as mild. Many of the things that are still being done today favor the spread of the virus, “he denounces.
In announcing the UK restrictions, Johnson said the new variant was 50-70% more transmissible. But many researchers have noted that this is a scientifically unproven claim.
While it is true that cases have skyrocketed in the UK over the past month, and also in South Africa, the spike came while different parts of the country had varying levels of restrictions and amid changes in behavior in the prior period to Christmas. “A complex scenario that favors the spread of the virus,” says Delgado Iribarren.
In any case, the microbiologist adds, “in Spain, without a British variant, we are already in the third wave; yes, with the sea in the background.