The many different virus variants worry researchers and the general public. But even though the variants are many, the mutations are the same. It could be a sign that the coronavirus is starting to look like an old uncle making the same joke over and over again.
The mutants are coming!
For several weeks, the different variants of the coronavirus have frightened the public. Not without reason, as there are signs that some of them are at least significantly more contagious than others.
In Sweden, the British variant is well on its way to taking over, and among the students in Uppsala, the South African is ravaging.
But now researchers are beginning to see a pattern. Many of the variants include the same mutations. In addition, the mutations have in several cases occurred in widely differing places.
It is not uncommon for nature to solve the same problems independently of each other, albeit in a similar way. On the contrary. The sand-colored fur of many desert living mammals is an example. Another is the fin-like extremities that whales, manatees and walruses have.
The coronavirus is no exception. In the United States, for example, seven lines of the coronavirus have been found that are genetically independent of each other, but all but one carry the exact same mutation in the so-called nail protein, which the virus uses to attach to the cell.
Like all proteins, the nail protein also consists of an linked chain of different amino acids. The original virus and position 677 in this protein contains the amino acid glutamine, abbreviated Q. In six of the different lines in the USA, however, glutamine has been replaced by the amino acid histidine (H), which is why this mutation is called 677H. In the seventh line, glutamine has been replaced by proline (P) instead.
But the 677H has not only emerged in the United States, but also in a number of other places, such as India, Egypt and Macedonia. 677H is also available in a variant called B.1.525, which was discovered in both Norway and Denmark, as well as in several lines derived from B.1.1.7, also known as the British variant.
Similarly, researchers have identified at least eight different mutations in the nail protein, all of which have occurred several times, independently of each other.
Mutations occur spontaneously and all the time. However, the vast majority are to the detriment of the virus and disappear quickly. Those who are now beginning to spread around the world, on the other hand, probably benefit from the virus in one way or another. But the fact that it is the same mutations that appear again and again, can be seen as a sign that it is precisely these mutations, and no others, that benefit the virus.
The danger is not over
This becomes obvious if you look at the different variants of the seams. Because then you see that the vast majority of them are just variations of one and the same theme. The variants may be new, but the building blocks – the mutations – that are included in each variant are the same.
The whole thing can be compared to the computer game Tetris where a certain number of different building blocks must be put together in different combinations, writes the evolutionary microbiologist Vaughn Cooper in Scientific American. The number of possible combinations is many, but the building blocks are the same.
All in all, this could be a sign that the coronavirus is starting to run out of ideas, he says. This is not to say that everything is peace and joy and that the virus can not surprise us more times. For evolution is an ongoing process.
An obvious cloud of unrest is the large spread of infection. Because the more viruses that are in vogue, the greater the risk that they will find completely new ways of passing on the infection. Especially when its conditions for reproduction are pushed back, which is now happening in connection with the large-scale vaccinations. For the variants that are then favored, they are the ones that manage to get past the protection that a vaccination is intended to provide.
Therefore, says Vaughn Cooper and many with him, the monitoring of new variants should continue to be a high priority.
Facts: The most talked about variants
B.1.1.7 – the British variant
The British variant was discovered in the autumn and is now common in Sweden. The variant is judged to be more contagious, but it is unclear how much. Some, however criticized, studies have shown that the variant can be more deadly. So far, there is no indication that the vaccine does not bite the British variant.
B.1.351 – the South African variant
The variant was identified at the end of December and has also been found in Sweden. Preliminary results from studies indicate a higher infectivity, but not more severe symptoms.
However, some studies indicate that this variant is somewhat less sensitive to vaccines, but the basis for the claim is considered “unsatisfactory”.
P.1 – the Brazilian variant
So far, there are no major studies showing that the variant would lead to more serious disease, nor any studies showing how effective the vaccine is against the virus.
In all cases, it may be worth adding that there is no evidence that the mentioned variants have arisen in each country. For example, the UK has for a long time had a very well-developed capacity to sequence new infectious agents, which means that many new variants are discovered right there, although they may in fact have originated elsewhere.