By Christmas, the world learned that a new form of the coronavirus that causes COVID-19, apparently more contagious than the original, had been registered in the UK.
This strain has already caused cases in France, and on Tuesday, December 29, the first was known in the United States, in Colorado: a man who is in isolation.
Do we have to end 2020 even more concerned?
The following are 5 answers about this new strain of coronavirus
What is a new strain of a virus?
Mutation, the change in the genetic form of a virus, is common. Viruses are constantly changing, generating what are called new strains, or new types, of viruses.
For example, the virus that causes the flu or influenza changes every season, forcing scientists to modify the vaccine each year to keep it effective.
There are viruses that change more often, that is, they are more unstable, and others that are more stable.
The coronavirus had already been modifying its genetic makeup, in fact, studies published in the middle of the year already registered new forms circulating in Europe, Africa and the United States.
Months later, 17 different forms of SARS-CoV-2 had already been detected, compared to the original type registered in Wuhan, China, in December 2019.
What draws the attention of scientists is that there are so many mutations in such a short time: in total to date, at least 25 of importance have already been detected.
In the United Kingdom, it was possible to classify this new mutation by looking for the reasons for a peak of cases, due to a rapid and unexpected spread of the virus in the south of the country.
These mutations can be detected because diagnostic tests analyze the genetic information of the virus, in this case the RNA.
This new form of the coronavirus, is it more contagious?
UK scientists say it is 50% more contagious than its predecessors.
Public health experts say the strain should already be circulating widely in communities.
Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the US National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said “attention needs to be paid to this strain.”
In an interview in The Washington Post, Fauci said that “obviously, we take seriously any type of mutation that may have functional significance. But I don’t think we know enough to make definitive statements, except to follow it and study it carefully. “
What usually happens is that viruses become more “efficient” with each mutation, which may explain the greater speed of spread.
How to prevent getting this new strain?
For the common people, it is impossible to know, first if they are going to be infected, and second, what type of virus may be circulating in their community.
Therefore, public health experts recommend following the same rules because, against any strain of the coronavirus, prevention is exactly the same: wear a mask, maintain a physical distance of 6 feet (two meters), wash your hands frequently, stay at home as long as possible and with the same family group living under the same roof, and maintain isolation if symptoms occur.
Could there be more mutations in the future?
A virus can have thousands of changes in its genetic makeup.
Many mutations will have no consequence on the virus’s ability to spread or cause disease, on the contrary, some of them harm the virus rather than improve it.
The mutations that should be of most concern, experts say, are those that improve the functioning of the virus and its ability to spread and infect.
For example, one of the mutations, the so-called H69 / V70 is the one that has killed thousands of minks, putting this animal species in danger.
Do vaccines immunize against this new strain of the virus?
A virus has several proteins but a specific one, called the spike protein, is what helps it infect.
Therefore, the mutations that most concern scientists are those that can modify this protein.
However, the vaccines that are already being administered in the world, that of Pfizer, Moderna and AztraZeneca / Oxford, “train” the immune system to be able to attack different parts of this protein.
Therefore, they believe that the vaccine will work to also immunize against this new variant.
But, they clarify, there is much to learn from the new coronavirus, and the time of immunity after having been vaccinated, or having been in contact with the virus.
More answers will help not only to improve vaccine formulations, but also to consider whether it will be a long-term vaccine or a seasonal immunization, such as the flu.
Sources: scientific studies, NIAID.