In the context of the current pandemic, the concern is growing more and more about the variants of the Coronavirus that are now spreading everywhere.
Like any other virus, SARS-CoV-2 also tends to mutate, giving rise to different variants, some of which are more concerned than others. So let’s see what they are and what we know about them. Before that, however, it may be helpful to take a step back and understand why and what it means that the virus mutates.
Mutations and Variants
Mutations of the new Coronavirus have been observed since the very early stages of the pandemic. However, while some do not directly and significantly impact the virus, others can give it characteristics that can improve its survival. For example, greater transmissibility, greater pathogenicity with induction of a more severe form of the disease. Severe (COVID-19 in the specific case of SARS-CoV-2) or the possibility of “circumventing” the immunity acquired by the individual following natural infection or any vaccines. When the virus is “enriched” with these characteristics, we must deal with variants that cause concern.
What are the variants of SARS-CoV-2 that are worrying the most?
To date (February 2021), the variants of the new Coronavirus that raise the most significant concerns are three, and all are characterized by mutations of the protein known as “spike,” that is the viral protein that allows the same virus to “hook” to the cells of the host organism.
The three variants are named after the place where they were first isolated and are as follows:
The English variant was first isolated in Great Britain and was reported to WHO from the UK in December 2020. The variant was named SARS-CoV-2 VOC 202012/01 ( Variant of Concern, the year 2020, month 12, variant 01 ) but is also known as B.1.1.7.
The Brazilian variant – also known as P.1 – was first isolated in Brazil in December 2020. In early January 2021, its presence was also reported in Europe, including Italy. It is monitored carefully as it has greater transmissibility and because it seems that it may decrease the effectiveness of vaccines.
South African variant
The South African variant was first isolated in October 2020 in South Africa, and its discovery was announced to WHO by the country’s national authorities in December 2020. In South Africa, the variant was named 501Y.V2 but is also known as B.1.351. It is unclear whether it could give rise to more severe disease. Studies on this are still ongoing.
The Indian variant – also known as B.1.617 – was first identified in October 2020, shortly after the English variant was identified. Initially, the Indian variant did not arouse particular concern in Europe as the very rapid spread of the English one caused the greatest alarm (B.1.1.7). However, since that time, the variant in question has rapidly spread in India and other countries (including Italy). To date (April 2021), it is starting to cause concern due to the dramatic situation in which many Indian areas are found.
According to the WHO (World Health Organization) weekly report of May 9, 2021, the Indian variant appears to have greater transmissibility. Preliminary evidence suggests a potential reduction in the efficacy of a monoclonal antibody used in the treatment of COVID-19, the bamlanivimab.
The potential impacts of the Indian variant on vaccine efficacy and the efficacy of other COVID-19 therapies, and the risk of reinfection remain uncertain, however. Several studies are being conducted on this subject. Therefore, the situation is evolving.