The microbiologist assessed the chances of the emergence of a new strain “Omicron” in Russia

by time news

The situation in South Africa is deteriorating rapidly. In 3 weeks, the percentage of positive PCR results increased from 1% to 30%. In other words, this is not a local outbreak, but a large-scale distribution. Scientists in South Africa are working day and night to understand what the new version of B.1.1.529 is, according to the National Institute for Infectious Diseases. The same variant has also been found in Botswana and Hong Kong, with the Hong Kong case involving a South African traveler, Reuters reported. Scientists believe that up to 90% of new cases in Hong Kong may be related to B.1.1.529. Yesterday there was information that a new version was revealed in Israel.

The South African Department of Health has already held an emergency briefing on a new variant with an unusually high number of mutations. It is known that mutations that make the virus more infectious are also found in the Alpha, Gamma and Lambda variants. A number of mutations are associated with better cell penetration and increased transmission capacity. And multiple mutations not previously encountered can be associated with the escape of neutralizing antibodies. WHO recognized the new version as dangerous and “assigned” it the Greek letter “Omicron”.

Microbiologist, Assistant of the Department of Science of the Pedagogical Faculty of Manchester Metropolitan University Victoria Doronina believes that WHO’s concerns about a new option are well founded:

– The new version B.1.1.529 is rapidly spreading and displacing all known strains, including Delta, which until now has been the champion in both prevalence and morbidity and mortality, including among the young population.

B.1.1.529 has a very large number of mutations relative to the original strain. There are about 50 of them, of which 32 are in the adhesion protein (S). And this is the protein against which the RNA and DNA vaccines are directed. Moreover, some mutations already exist in other variants indicated by letters. But the unpleasant thing is that there are also a number of new mutations. In addition, during illness, a significant number of antibodies are also directed against this protein. This means that those who have recovered are also less protected from re-infection. The more mutations, and, accordingly, the difference between the original strain and B.1.1.529, the more likely it is that the immunity of those who have been ill and vaccinated will work poorly.

– Could you imagine his appearance?

– After the appearance of the options Alpha (British) and Beta (South African), they immediately started talking about the fact that the Greek alphabet might not be enough. Although the coronavirus mutates less than the flu, with the billions of people it infects, it is only a matter of time before new variants emerge.

At the beginning of the pandemic, everyone expected the coronavirus to undergo the same evolution as the influenza virus, gradually losing its ability to cause serious illness. But this only happens if the virus causes severe illness in most carriers, which limits its spread. Then variants that do not cause serious illness spread faster. The original variant of the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus was spread mainly by asymptomatic carriers. Many people now have immunity against the original strain as a result of illness or vaccinations. Under these conditions, the evolutionary advantage is gained by variants that can bypass the already existing immune defenses. Among other experts, in one of my previous interviews, I said that the situation with incomplete vaccination in Russia is ideal for the emergence of new strains. The vaccination rate in Botswana, where this strain appeared (37%), is comparable to Russia (45%).

Why, then, has southern Africa spawned a second significant variant of the coronavirus, while Russia has not given rise to a single one? It seems that anti-epidemic measures are working better in Russia. From an epidemiological point of view, every percent of the vaccinated population reduces the likelihood of new strains emerging. And / or there are no scientific groups that are closely involved in the determination of the sequence of strains in Russia, and then sound the alarm about them.

– What are the chances that it will spread quickly?

– It is already spreading rapidly across the African continent, found on a person in Hong Kong who returned from South Africa. But wider distribution can be avoided. South Africa has large commercial ties with the UK, but the Beta variant has not gained popularity, unlike the Delta. Now the British government has announced the termination of flights with South Africa and several nearby countries. This is to prevent the spread of the strain. I would like to hope that the British have drawn a conclusion from the story of the Delta, which was massively brought into the country by the Indians in the spring of 2021.

Great Britain can be regarded as the canary of Europe, and hence Russia – if B.1.1.529 is found there, its appearance in Russia is only a matter of time. Unless, of course, it was already brought by a student or a safari lover who took advantage of the extra weekend.

– Are there any chances in a short time to modify vaccines for a new strain?

“Modifying the RNA and DNA of vaccines is relatively easy to do, although it will take a long time to produce a new vaccine in significant quantities. The first “bottleneck” is precisely in production, the second – in the readiness of the population to take root.

Until now, the available vaccines against the original strain have provided good protection against new variants – from Alpha to Delta. But if WHO recognizes that this option deserves a new letter, which is assigned to fundamentally new and dangerous strains, it will be an impetus to modify existing vaccines.

The “First World” countries must have an interest in suppressing this strain at its place of origin so that it does not reach Europe.

– Is it realistic to create vaccines that are resistant to all mutations of the coronavirus?

– It is possible to create a vaccine that was effective against existing mutations. It is impossible to create a vaccine for all possible mutations, since they can be mutually exclusive.

When I was a research assistant at Newcastle University, my research topic was a short protein from the RNA virus, the foot and mouth disease virus. The protein was in 20 amino acids and had an interesting effect that is applied in biotechnology. In nature, there are several hundred variants of the amino acid sequence of this protein that cause the same effect. One possible research topic was to mutagenize these amino acids and see if new options were found. I doubted the result, because I believed that nature had long ago found all possible solutions. And it turned out to be wrong – two graduate students found new options in a year. And that’s just 20 amino acids. The coronavirus has several proteins, thousands of amino acids, which are involved in the development of infection. Every infected person, especially with a weakened immune system, is an evolutionary factory for developing new variants.

We can only play a catch-up game with the evolution of the virus.

– What measures need to be taken right now to prevent the spread of the new variant?

– There is no need to take new measures, it is enough to conscientiously implement the existing ones. Sanitary and hygienic measures – social distance, wearing masks in transport, ventilating transport and premises, frequent hand washing – work against all viruses transmitted by airborne droplets, including all variants of coronavirus, old, new and those that we have not yet heard of … In countries where these measures are followed by the majority of the population, doctors last year noticed a significant decrease in the incidence of not only influenza, but also rhinoviruses and a host of other viruses.

– Is it true that the emergence of a new strain is caused by vaccination?

– No it is not true. As I noted earlier, both the country of origin of the B.1.1.529 strain, Botswana, and the country of its rapid spread, South Africa, are countries with a low number of vaccinated persons.

First, it is not yet known how effective the vaccines will be against the new variant. Computer simulations show that it is not strong, but there are many cases where computer simulations turned out to be wrong.

Secondly, it is not known whether the new strain will reach Russia and whether it can cause a significant deterioration in the situation. The Latin American variant of Gamma, which is mowing down South America, was discovered prior to the Delta in January 2021. However, it did not create any noticeable incidence in Europe. While you are waiting for B.1.1.529 to spread or not, it is quite possible to die or get a “long COVID” from the strains resident in Europe, which vaccines protect against.

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