Readers of my postings on the pandemic will know that I have been writing about multiple and multiplying mutations for some time. I attach below the summary that I wrote almost a month ago.
Mutations are the real challenge ahead. It’s now an arms race.
New and more dangerous changes are made by chance among the billions of mistakes made by the virus when it replicates in infected hosts, and these new mutations propagate simply because they are more effective. The race is on to get infections down fast enough to reduce the progress of these advantageous mistakes before some really resistant mutation occurs.
Think Covid resistance like MRSA.
This is a global problem, though, because there’s a global pool of infection. Westernised populations are not isolated from mutations that happen elsewhere. Past vaccines will not necessarily protect fully against new mutations, and partly effective vaccines are only good for screening out the weaker strains of the virus. By definition, this opens the way to stronger versions. Infected hosts are where mutations happen, irrespective of age, infirmity, and whether or not the person infected has symptoms. All humans everywhere are potential factories of mutations.
Mutated strains of the virus have been growing dominant since the closing weeks of 2020. South Africa identified 501Y.V2, Brazil found P1, and B.1.1.7 was found in the UK. Others have been found in Ohio and elsewhere. The broad characteristic of these has been greater transmissibility.
We have now entered a new era with the discovery of a different mutation. As I’m reading what’s been coming out over the last week or so, the new generation of the virus has a mutation in a different part of its structure, referred to as E484K, and this mutation has now been seen in most of the first generation of mutations. E484K appears to change the virus so that it binds more tightly to the structure of human cells. Early studies report that the existing range of vaccines are less effective, some are much less effective, at creating viable defences against this next generation of the virus. Logic says that stronger mutations may find ways to overcome resistance to antibodies in those who’ve been infected before with other strains, as well as antibodies stimulated by vaccination.
The arms race has begun
The next strategic change we must look out for is a mutation that achieves greater levels of sickness in younger people.
Peter is chairman of Flexiion and has a number of other business interests. (c) 2021, Peter Osborn
Covid-19 insights for Monday 11 January, 2021
Areas of the globe are getting much hotter, as the heatmaps show. Infection is running fast and loose.
The next few months will reveal much about this virus and it’s capabilities. We will learn the scale of the problem and whether it’s persistent or transient.
So far as I’ve been able to understand, four factors make this virus and it’s threat unusual and significant:
- It’s capable of infecting around two out of three hosts without causing symptoms, and this gives it surreptitious and unseen opportunity to replicate and transmit. Worse, it means there is a hidden pool of infection in which it can mutate.
- The virus replicates very quickly, which increases its chances of stumbling on worthwhile mutations that improve its ability to propagate. So far, it’s played the maths correctly, and found mutations that vastly improve transmissibility without increasing the rate at which it kills hosts.
- It’s proved able to infect almost all parts of humans. It can jump through protective membranes into the brain, and navigate the body’s defences pretty much everywhere in a way that is highly unusual.
- The nature of our world has helped this virus propagate around the globe with great speed, to almost all major centres of population, and this has created huge pools of infection, which further increase the chances of successful mutation.
Infection is crucially important because mutations happen in hosts – more infected hosts over longer, lead to more mutations. Mutations are of great significance because they can impair and even thwart our vaccines, which present the only tools we have to get control of the situation besides national house arrest.
As a general rule of thumb, medication gets better the more specific it is, which makes it worrying that the presently approved vaccines all appear to have almost implausibly high efficacy. At best, mutations will blunt this performance and reduce it towards the 50% or so that’s more typical of mass vaccines. We cannot afford to be without multiple vaccines in a world of vast, global pools of infection, and multiple and multiplying mutations.