Why it matters that the coronavirus is changing – and what this means for vaccine effectiveness

The French government will not accept passengers from the UK for fear of the new mutated strain of coronavirus. Steve Parsons / PA Images via Getty Images
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A new variant of SARS-CoV-2 has been spreading rapidly in the UK with over 1,400 cases since September. SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, generally accumulates mutations slowly over time, but this new variant has accumulated many mutations quickly.
What does it mean if this new version of the virus stays as it seems? Will this new version of the virus replace the old one? Will it be easier to catch? Most importantly, will the current vaccines still be effective?
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This interests me because I'm an evolutionary microbiologist who studies the relationship between the transmission and evolution of infectious diseases. In particular, I spend a lot of time studying the effects of vaccines on pathogen development and the effects of pathogen development on the effects of vaccines.
What is the new SARS-CoV-2 mutant that showed up?
When the spike proteins mutate on the surface of the SARS-CoV-2 virus, they change shape, which can affect the coronavirus' ability to infect cells. Tharun15 / iStock via Getty Images Plus
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The new version of SARS-CoV-2 called B.1.1.7 is spreading in the UK and possibly beyond. The differences between the old and new viruses include 23 mutations in the virus' genetic code that changed four viral proteins.
Eight of these 23 mutations affect the spike protein. This is important because the spike protein allows the virus to enter human cells, and it is an important target of our immune response, both in fighting the virus during infection and in protecting against disease after vaccination with the Pfizer vaccines and Moderna.
If the changes in the spike protein help the virus enter human cells more easily, the virus could be more easily transmitted from person to person.
These mutations can also alter the effectiveness of the host's immune system against the virus and potentially reduce the effectiveness of current vaccines.
What is different about this new version of SARS-CoV-2?
Samples of the new virus isolated from patients indicate that this variant has increased relatively frequently over the past three months.
The increase in incidence is worrying as it suggests - but does not prove - that the B.1.1.7 isolates of SARS-CoV-2 are more transmissible than the original virus. Some have estimated that the new virus can be up to 70% more transmissible than the old virus. While these estimates are in line with the data, it is completely too early to draw any definitive conclusion.
If this increase in transmissibility is confirmed, it may be due to the mutations in the spike protein that allow it to bind more tightly to the ACE2 receptor, which gives the gateway access to human cells.
But it could also be due to other changes in the virus.
Is it more dangerous? If yes why?
If the new version B.1.1.7 is indeed more transmissible than the old virus, it is more dangerous in the sense that more people will get sick.
However, I am not aware of any good evidence that there is a difference in the severity of the disease caused by the new version of this virus compared to the older one. With so few known cases, however, it may be too early to tell.
Will Pfizer and Moderna vaccines against this new strain still be effective?
Both the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines train our immune systems to recognize a specific version of the viral spike protein. The version of the spike protein used by the vaccines was designed to match that of the old virus rather than that of the B.1.1.7 virus. This means that if this new virus spreads widely, the vaccines may become less effective than expected.
The vaccine virus mismatch is an ongoing challenge for scientists tasked with developing the seasonal flu vaccine. But even if the virus and vaccine are mismatched, the flu vaccine will reduce the likelihood and severity of illness.
So the question is not whether the vaccines will be effective, but how effective they will be. The severity of the mismatch is important, but the only way to determine its impact in this case is through scientific studies and, to my knowledge, no data has yet been collected on it. In other words, it is too early to say whether and how this new variant will affect the overall effectiveness of Pfizer and Moderna vaccines.
Should people still get the new mRNA vaccine?
The appearance of this new B.1.1.7 makes it even more important that people get vaccinated as soon as possible.
If this new version is more transmissible, or if the vaccine is less effective due to a virus and vaccine mismatch, more people will need to be vaccinated to achieve herd immunity and get this disease under control.
Additionally, we now have evidence that the SARS-CoV-2 spike protein can change drastically in a short period of time. Hence, it is important that we get the virus under control to prevent it from developing further and completely undermining vaccination efforts.
This article was republished by The Conversation, a non-profit news site dedicated to exchanging ideas from academic experts. It was written by: David Kennedy, Penn State.
Continue reading:
The main scientific breakthrough for 2020 was understanding SARS-CoV-2 and its causes for COVID-19 and then developing several vaccines
A second way into cells for SARS-CoV-2: A new understanding of the neuropilin-1 protein could accelerate vaccine research
David Kennedy does not work for any company or organization that would benefit from this article, does not consult any stocks or companies that would benefit from this article, and has not disclosed any relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

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