Covid-19 and its variants — Should we really be worried?
Natalia Islam, Unity Bands Research Correspondent, February 9, 2022
Seems like every other week the news of another covid-19 variant is taking over the news by storm. This is often met with confusion, anger and most of all, hopelessness as the seemingly never ending covid-19 story continues on. However, maybe these variants are not as serious or potent as we make them to be. To understand this, we must delve into what variants are and how they come about.
A variant is the genetic code of the virus that may contain one or more mutations. A mutation refers to a single change in a virus’s genome. Mutations frequently occur in viruses. However, despite popular belief, only a few can actually change the characteristics of the virus and affect its potency. Majority of the mutations found in new and upcoming variants affect parts of the virus not involved in infection. Thus, they are still susceptible to mainstream vaccines and are not a huge cause of concern. Variants that are more susceptible to the vaccines slowly disappear from the population — such as the beta and gamma variants — while some others persist.
All emerging variants are characterized into different categories based on the variant proportions at the national and regional levels, and the potential effect of its mutations on the effectiveness of medical countermeasures, severity of the disease, and disease transmissibility.
According to the U.S Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), 10 variants are being continuously monitored in the United States. Out of these, only 2 have yet been classified as Variants of Concern (VOC) — Delta and Omicron.
This variant was first discovered in India and led to a surge in cases. Data suggests that it is twice as contagious as the original virus, and may cause more severe illness in unvaccinated people then previous variants. This is due to the changes observed in its spike proteins. Spike proteins are usually used by viruses to penetrate into host cells and cause infection. Spike proteins are usually used by viruses to penetrate into host cells and cause infection. This makes them great targets for vaccines and other forms of therapeutics. Substitutions in these may lead to reduced susceptibility to available monoclonal antibody therapeutics or reduced neutralization by vaccines.
On November 24th, 2021, the Omicron variant was first identified in South Africa. The WHO classified it as VOC due to the increase in Covid infections in South Africa that coincided with the detection of Omicron. This variant has many spike proteins that are different from the original virus. While larger case laboratory and epidemiological studies are needed to access how the Omicron variant differs from delta and the original, a few studies show it is thought to be more transmissible, cause a more severe infection and may be less susceptible to vaccines. This is due to the fact that this variant contains more changes in the spike proteins than any other variant yet. In addition, it contains 15 mutations in the receptor binding domain itself, which is a part of the virus that is located on the spike protein and directly affects its ability to enter host cells, and thus may have a significant impact on the efficacy of therapy.
In conclusion, new variants are inevitable but only a few should be regarded with more concern than the rest. While some newer variants might show less susceptibility to vaccines, it is still our best protection and will continue to play an important part in protecting against hospitalization and death, and in helping control the spread of the pandemic.
Natalia Islam is an enthusiastic and curious Biomedical Scientist in the making with extensive background knowledge and appreciation of life at the cellular level. She enjoys reading, spending time with friends, and volunteering on her days off.
Unity Bands Inc. is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization supporting COVID-19 response and research.