SARS-CoV-2 has been undergoing a series of mutations since the pandemic broke out early last year. But what exactly do these mutations entail and how will they affect the global population? Here’s everything you need to know.
In any virus, most mutations go undetected and are of little note. However, sometimes a mutation produces a variant that is stronger and more efficient at infecting people. With Covid-19, experts predict that the recent strains of the virus contain mutations that allow the virus to bind to our cells easier. There have been a few variants so far. The D614G variant affected populations in Australia and India in May. The B.1.1.7 variant in the United Kingdom followed in December. Scientists recorded the B.1.351 variant in South Africa, along with new variants in Los Angeles and Ohio. These variants have a higher rate of transmission because of mutations on the spike protein which is the part of the virus that binds to human cells.
Though we don’t have definitive data yet, scientists believe the B.1.1.7 variant might not just be more transmissible but also deadlier. We don’t know if it has a higher mortality rate yet, but the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) projects that it will be the dominant strain in the United States by March.
The new strains of the coronavirus haven’t thrown off efforts to develop and distribute vaccines. Most vaccines developed so far produce a broad immune response so even if you contracted a variant, your vaccination would still offer you a degree of protection.
Moderna is currently working on a booster shot that is meant to fight off strains from the B.1.351 lineage. In a statement issued in January, the company claimed that its vaccine would probably work against the B.1.351 variant, but not to the same degree of effectiveness as against other variants. Pfizer also said that their vaccine will be less effective on the B.1.351 variant. Vaccines from both companies target the spike protein, but there is a danger that the spike protein will mutate drastically and reduce the efficacy of the vaccine.