The Coronavirus Is Mutating

Britain on Saturday announced tightened pandemic restrictions that returned London and parts of the country to virtual lockdown and reversed earlier promises for relaxed rules over the holidays, as it faces a newly emerging coronavirus mutation with significantly faster transmission rates.

Boris Johnson at news conference

At a news conference from 10 Downing Street, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said “the new variant may be up to 70 percent more transmissible than previous versions of the virus here. This is spreading very fast.” Announcing restrictions he added “We, of course, bitterly regret the changes, When the virus changes its method of attack, we as a country have to change our method of defense.”

The new mutation, or variant, was first detected in southeast England in September and is quickly becoming the dominant strain in London and other regions in Britain.

England’s chief medical adviser, Chris Whitty said “We have alerted the World Health Organization and are continuing to analyze the available data.”

In South Africa, a similar version of the virus has emerged, which seems to share some of the mutations seen in the British variant. That virus has been found in 90 percent of the samples whose genetic sequences have been analyzed in South Africa.

Scientists are worried about these variants. Researchers have recorded thousands of tiny modifications in the genetic material of the. Researchers also expect the virus to gain useful mutations enabling it to spread more easily or to escape detection by the immune system. The British announcement also prompted concern that the virus may evolve to become resistant to the vaccines just now rolling out. The worries are focused on a pair of alterations in the viral genetic code that may make it less vulnerable to certain antibodies.

Jesse Bloome, an evolutionary biologist at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center says “It’s a real warning that we need to pay closer attention, Certainly these mutations are going to spread and definitely, the scientific community needs to monitor these mutations and we need to characterize which ones have effects.”

According to Muge Cevik, scientific adviser to the British government, The British variant has 23 mutations. Most were in a segment of the virus’s genome that encodes for the spike protein, the protruding structure essential to the pathogen’s ability to bind with the receptor cells in a person who gets exposed and then infected. These mutations may allow the variant to replicate and transmit more efficiently.

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