New COVID strain: “If the virus continues to circulate freely, the risk that it will adapt better increases”

Nueva cepa COVID: “Si el virus sigue circulando libremente, aumenta el riesgo de que se adapte mejor”

“If we let the virus continue to circulate freely, we give it many possibilities to better adapt to human transmission,” says Tulio de Oliveira, the Brazilian behind the discovery of a new “more transmissible” mutation of the coronavirus that is causing concern throughout the world. world, in an interview with BBC News Brazil.

Oliveira is director of the Krisp laboratory at the Nelson Mandela School of Medicine at the University of KwaZulu-Natal in Durbán (South Africa), where he has lived since 1997.

He led the team that discovered a new variant of the coronavirus in the country and shared the data with the World Health Organization (WHO), which in turn allowed the UK to discover its own variant.

Oliveira points out that the two variants are more transmissible than the original, but, for now, they are not known to be more lethal.

They share some similarities, but have evolved separately. They both have a mutation, called N501Y, located in a crucial part of the virus, used to infect cells in the human body.

In South Africa, the new variant identified by Oliveira and his team would be behind the second wave of the country’s pandemic.

It spread rapidly and became the dominant form of the virus in some parts of the territory, which caused the saturation of the health system.

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The UK variant, which is also more contagious, has spread to south-east England, creating new restrictions and quarantines for the local population.

This week, dozens of governments temporarily suspended international flights originating or stopping in the United Kingdom in an attempt to control the spread of this mutation of the virus.

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The appearance of new mutations of the coronavirus generated alarm around the world.

However, by this Sunday, several European countries as well as Canada and Japan had detected the first cases of this new variant.

Here is a summary of the interview that BBC Brazil did with Oliveira.

What is this new variant about? Is there any reason to panic?

In South Africa we discovered a variant that appears to be spreading infections much more rapidly. We discovered this variant in Nelson Mandela Bay, one of the most touristic regions in South Africa. This variant quickly expanded to Cape Town and Durban.

When we sequenced the genetic code, we found that it had many mutations, mainly in the protein of the virus that enters the human receptor to enter human cells.

Some of the mutations in this protein occurred at position 501, in an amino acid called tyrosine.

This mutation was also found in a completely different strain in the UK, but one that has a mutation [en común] between them. And it is exactly this mutation that we believe is related to the increased transmissibility of the virus.

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So far, the biggest danger is that, because transmissions are faster, our hospitals are completely overcrowded with patients needing intensive care. So, at the moment, we cannot receive more patients in the hospitals.

Both we and the British think that these two variants are potentially no longer lethal, but they are hitting hospitals in the UK and South Africa heavily.

What would be your recommendation to prevent this mutation from circulating in Brazil?

First, we do not know if the same variant is already in Brazil. Mainly because the genomic part of Brazil is not as strong as in South Africa and the United Kingdom.

Therefore, it will not surprise us that several countries in the world, as they begin to sequence more the genomes of their strains, find viruses more adapted to transmission.

Second, Brazil has never managed to control the covid-19 pandemic, and therefore the possibility that another strain will develop in Brazil or be imported is high.

It would be important to control the pandemic, make sure there are hospital beds, and try to reduce the number of people dying from this disease.

In other words, since Brazil is not strong in the genetic sequencing of the virus, we do not know if this mutation has already reached Brazil, or if some other mutation has already reached Brazil.or even if there are mutations in the virus itself that have not yet been discovered in other parts of the world …

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That’s it, exactly. The main message is that if we let this virus circulate at a medium or high level, we give a good chance that the virus is better adapted to transmission in humans.

So my suggestion for Brazil is to increase the sequencing part of the virus to try to better understand what the circulating strains are and try to detect now a strain that circulates much faster or an external introduction of a strain that tends to circulate and causes more infections.

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