‘Covid-19 is not over, be prepared for surprises’

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It’s almost cinematic, says a virologist. Just when many across the world believed that governments were beginning to get a handle on SARS-CoV-2, a new “highly transmissible” strain of the coronavirus is documented in the UK.

“Covid-19 is not over, be prepared for surprises,” he cautioned, as virus transmission is not linear, and multiple outbreaks can take place. With UK reporting a variant, several concerns emerge on whether a “highly transmissible” strain of the virus also meant a “more severe” version and if the Covid-19 vaccines may be effective against the new strain?

While most experts say that it’s too early to call on virus severity or vaccine effectiveness, they are optimistic that 2020’s fast-tracked events will help governments and the scientific community be more nimble-footed in their response to new strain.

“SARS-CoV-2 is a RNA virus, and mutations arise naturally as the virus replicates. Many thousands of mutations have already arisen, but only a very small minority are likely to be important and to change the virus in an appreciable way.

COG-UK (Covid-19 Genomics UK consortium) says that there are currently around 4,000 mutations in the spike protein,” according to a British Medical Journal (BMJ) article.

Waiting for more data

“It is a yellow signal, to be careful and watchful, and not panic,” said Shashank Joshi, with Maharashtra’s Covid taskforce.

Two geographical regions have reported new strains, the UK and South Africa. The scientific community is waiting for clinical data to support the early observations being made, he said. The BMJ article said that last Monday, England’s health secretary Matt Hancock told the House of Commons that “Initial analysis showed that the new variant “may be associated” with the recent rise in cases in SouthEast England. However, this is not the same as saying that it is causing the rise.”

The variant was detected by COG-UK, which undertakes random genetic sequencing of positive covid-19 samples around the UK, BMJ said.

Case for curbs

Taking UK’s cue to break the chain of transmission by clamping down on Christmas celebrations, several countries including India banned flights from the UK.

In India, Joshi believes there is a case for limited curbs, given three factors that could aid transmission — the weather and pollution, density of population and migration and mobility.

While the effectiveness of Covid-19 vaccines against this strain will be studied, experts claim say, it could become like the influenza vaccine that is given every year. The new-tech m-RNA vaccines developed against the existing virus may at best need to be tweaked to tackle the new strain, said a seasoned virologist, and that would not require the entire repertoire of trials. It is also not clear if greater transmissibility made the virus more severe or weak, and since viruses need hosts to survive, it may not entirely kill off their hosts, he pointed out.

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