New Covid strain: How worried should we be?

New Covid strain: How worried should we be?

Scientists will keep a close eye on this variant to see if it is a better spreader than others.

A mutated virus sounds instinctively scary, but to mutate and change is what viruses do.

Most of the time it is either a meaningless tweak or the virus alters itself in such a way that it gets worse at infecting us and the new variant just dies out.

There are two notable sets of mutation – and I apologise for their hideous names.

Both are found in the crucial spike protein, which is the key the virus uses to unlock the doorway into our body’s cells in order to hijack them.

The mutation N501 (I did warn you) alters the most important part of the spike, known as the “receptor-binding domain”.

This is where the spike makes first contact with the surface of our body’s cells. Any changes that make it easier for the virus to get inside are likely to give it an edge.

The other mutation – a H69/V70 deletion – has emerged several times before, including famously in infected mink.

The concern was that antibodies from the blood of survivors was less effective at attacking that variant of virus.

Mutations to the spike protein lead to questions about the vaccine because the three leading jabs – Pfizer, Moderna and Oxford – all train the immune system to attack the spike.

However, the body learns to attack multiple parts of the spike. That is why health officials remain convinced the vaccine will work against this variant.

Soon mass vaccination will put a different kind of pressure on the virus because it will have to change in order to infect people who have been immunized.

If this does drive the evolution of the virus, we may have to regularly update the vaccines, as we do for flu, to keep up.

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