Saturday, April 24, 2021

'Scary' - New 'super variants' may prolong the COVID-19 pandemic

Three countries are featured in the Australian morning bulletin: India, Brazil, and Tanzania. Here are the shorts:

  • Scientists are freaked! “It’s really very scary.”
  • Tanzania has a “largely undocumented epidemic” with “few public health measures in place”.
  • Brazil has been described as a “biological Fukushima” due to the uncontrolled spread
  • India is hitting record levels of infection with more than 200,000 new cases every single day

Scientists’ horror over new COVID strain’s ‘escape mutation’. Following is the text of the Bulletin report.


Scientists have detected what is believed to be the world’s most mutated COVID strain as fears grow that new super variants may prolong the pandemic.

The team of experts revealed their findings in a preprint research paper, which reports the coronavirus variant carries 34 mutations.

And among those changes are 14 with the spike protein - the part of the virus which it uses to get inside human cells and make people sick.

The Brazilian variant has 18 mutations total, with 10 mutations in the spike, while the UK strain has 17 mutations, including eight in key protein.

The apparent new variant also contains the worrying E484K change - referred to as an “escape mutation” - which helps the virus beat antibodies and is coming in other worrying strains.

The variant of interest (VOI) was discovered in three air travellers who arrived in Angola from Tanzania in the middle of February.

Both countries have been on the UK red list since January.

Scientists from the Angola Ministry of Health, the Africa CDC, the Universities of Oxford and Cape Town, and multi-institution research body KRISP warned the variant needs “urgent study”.

They also warned the danger as Tanzania has a “largely undocumented epidemic” with “few public health measures in place”.

The country’s official case count is just 509 infections with 21 deaths - although it is expected the actual figures are much higher.

Tanzania’s government has engaged in COVID denialism and President John Magufuli called for prayers and herbal-infused steam to beat the virus up until his sudden death in March.

It is feared the rampaging spread of the virus as cases increase fuels these mutations - which may allow the bug to become more deadly, more transmissible and more adept at dodging antibodies.

Dr William A Haseltine, a former Harvard professor, told The Sun Online the new variant is of “considerable concern” due to its high number of mutations, the type of mutations and the fact it appears to come from a different virus “lineage”.

Most of the notable variants can be traced back to the B1 strain - but the new variants appear to have evolved from a different source.

He also raised concerns over the “vacuum of information” coming out of Tanzania which is hampering the monitoring of the potentially dangerous new mutations.

“These mutations could increase the concentration of the virus in infected people, which may help prolong the infection and increase transmissibility,” Dr Haseltine told The Sun Online.

“The Tanzanian variant demonstrates the enormous versatility of this virus. Originally, many expected this virus to be relatively stable but it is showing to us with this variant and others, that this is not actually the case.”

In the paper, the team warned the “constellation of mutations” could mean the variant is more resistant to antibodies and vaccines and also could be more infectious.

NED–3586 How Coronavirus mutates - 0

The new VOI has been temporarily dubbed A. VOI. V2, while Dr Haseltine has called it the “Tanzania variant”.

The Human Vaccines Project said the virus carries “more mutations” than any previous strain.

It comes as fears grow that rampant COVID outbreaks across the world - such as in Brazil and India - could derail efforts to beat the pandemic.

Brazil has been described as a “biological Fukushima” due to the uncontrolled spread, while India is hitting record levels of infection with more than 200,000 new cases every single day.

Both have spawned new variants such as the P1 from Brazil and the “double mutant” COVID–19 from India.

World Health Organisation (WHO) chiefs have warned the global outbreak as “nowhere near finished” as super variants continue to surge.

Global daily case counts are now hitting highs not seen since the very peak of the pandemic last year, with more than 800,000 daily infections.

New mutations on the coronavirus can make it harder for the body’s immune system, which has been primed to look out for the “original” strain either through vaccination or prior infection, to recognise it.

Antibodies - proteins produced by the immune system to fight the virus - may be weaker against new strains.

The threat of new coronavirus strains also means masks and social distancing could be needed well into 2022, despite the vaccine rollout, and it is not clear when border controls will be relaxed.

It’s feared should a new variant take hold, further lockdowns may be needed to clamp down and stop the spread.

Studies have shown the current vaccines do still work against new variants, but may be less effective.

Scientists are already working on tweaked vaccines to help deal with new mutations in future, much like the flu vaccine which is altered every year.

Dr Haseltine said it is “absolutely critical” the rampant spread of COVID in nations like Brazil and India are reined in to beat the pandemic.

And he warned areas where there are holes in the global monitoring of COVID, such as in Tanzania, could throw up more surprise mutations.

“The more the virus spreads, the more variants arise, and the greater the chance the virus may increase in transmissibility, evade our immune response, and increase in virulence,” he said.

"In addition to the outbreaks in Brazil and India, we would add outbreaks in Eastern Europe, South America, North America, including here in the US.

“There is a vacuum of information coming from Tanzania, which needs to be addressed promptly for Tanzanians and for the health of the world.”

The leading expert warned virus mutations pose a “serious threat” to our current arsenal of vaccines - and there may already be variants out there which dodge first generation jabs.

“We believe, because of a lack of systematic surveillance that there are, as of yet, unobserved variants with enhanced properties to increase transmission, disease, and immune evasion,” he said.

However, he added it is “critical” that as many people as possible get vaccinated as soon as possible.

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Addressing the Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh last week, WHO special envoy Dr David Nabarro said new variants will be a “regular” occurrence while the virus is still prevalent around the world.

“The pandemic is nowhere near finished. Each week we have seen four and a half million cases being reported and know those are an enormous underestimate,” he warned.

"And we are still seeing a really significant number of deaths - nearly three million.

“What I want to stress is that the pandemic is surging forward everywhere.”

Dr Tony Lockett, from King’s College London’s Institute of Pharmaceutical Science, previously told The Sun Online about the prospect of a devastating new mutation emerging from the rampant spread worldwide.

“The effect - well it could be devastating - much worse than the original as younger people could become sicker and those who have had the virus get reinfected with the new strain,” he said.

“It’s really very scary.”

His comments come as it was warned coronavirus mutations could render vaccines redundant in less than one year, according to a survey of epidemiologists by The People’s Vaccine Alliance.


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