Coronavirus COVID-19 Vaccine"" sticker and a medical syringe in this illustration taken October 30, 2020. REUTERS/Dado Ruvic
Coronavirus COVID-19 Vaccine"" sticker and a medical syringe in this illustration taken October 30, 2020. REUTERS/Dado Ruvic

What is a coronavirus variant and what does it mean for you?

By Rudolph Nkgadima Time of article published Feb 8, 2021

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CAPE TOWN - There have been several identified Covid-19 variants since the outbreak in Wuhan, with three continuing to spread across the globe that have been identified by scientists around the world.

The 501Y.V2 variant, first discovered by scientists in South Africa, the B.1.351 first identified in the UK and the P.1 variant, identified in Brazil – these variants seem to spread faster among people, causing more infections with the Covid-19 virus, according to scientists.

Reports of coronavirus variants have raised interest and concern in the impact of viral changes.

What is a variant?

Variants are mutations of a virus. All viruses mutate when they copy themselves in order to spread and thrive. Most mutations are insignificant, some can actually harm the virus, and others can produce a variant that will make it more transmittable.

Mutations often have little effect on a virus, but sometimes they change the template so much they cause changes in the virus' physical structure.

Where are these variants from?

  1. The Covid-19 variant B.1.351 was identified in the UK
  2. The Covid-19 variant 501Y.V2 was identified in South Africa
  3. A variant known as the P.1 (or B.1.1.248) was identified in Brazil.
  4. The Danish strain of Covid-19 referred to as a “cluster S
  5. A new mutant strain of Covid-19 discovered

These will not be the last variants of Sars-CoV-2 that arise, and scientists continue to track changes in the genome. Any changes can be useful for genomic epidemiologists to assess transmission dynamics and patterns, in turn helping inform public health units to alter their response to any emerging threats.

How do variants affect humans?

Although the coronavirus has undergone several mutations since the beginning of the pandemic, there is no evidence these actually aggravate the disease or are more likely to cause death.

All three variants detected in the UK, South Africa and Brazil have undergone changes to their spike protein. This is the part of the virus that attaches to human cells and makes it better at infecting cells and spreading.

Vaccines and new variants

The vaccines authorised so far and those in development produce what’s called a polyclonal response, generating numerous antibodies that home in on different parts of the virus.

Changes to any of those target sites raise the possibility that the vaccines would be less effective, not that they won’t work at all.

Can scientists stop new variants emerging?

The Sars-CoV-2 virus makes around one or two mutations a month. This sounds quite a low number, and is in fact lower than for other viruses, including flu. The more the virus circulates, however, the more opportunity it has to change.

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