Animation variant
“Pretty much all of the vaccines in use can save your life from dying of COVID-19, even if you get infected by a variant. The best vaccine is the one you’re offered first," said Jeremy Kamil, a US-based virologist. Image Credit: Vijith Pulikkal

Highlights

  • Vaccines offer the key to curbing the spread of the coronavirus, and the so-called variants of concern, says virologist 
  • Vaccinations give your body a mugshot of the ‘enemy’
  • They train the adaptive immune system to act as the police force constantly looking to arrest any viral burglar inside your body
  • Experts have called out alarmist stories about variants — or ‘scariants’ — for sloppy science and scare-mongering

Dubai: There had been at least 5,935 variants of the dreaded virus that causes COVID-19, based on GISAID online science database, as of March 8, 2021.

Most of these variants are innocuous — not considered “variants of concern”. But one scientist likens each variant to a “lottery ticket” that allows the virus to improve the chance of “winning” by learning new “tricks”. Here’s a Gulf News Q&A with virologist Dr. Jeremy Kamil.

Q: Why are there too many variants of SARS-CoV-2 COVID? What’s the long and short of it?

“The biggest reason there are so many variants around the world is because there have been so many cases. Every new case we allow to happen is like buying a lottery ticket for the virus — except the prize isn’t money. It’s that the virus gets to learn a new trick.”

Dr Jeremy Kamil, Virologist
An associate professor of Microbiology and Immunology at the Louisiana State University (LSU) Health Shreveport, Dr Kamil is a recognised virology expert, having done numerous peer-reviewed research on molecular virology published in PNAS, The Journal of Experimental Medicine, PLoS and Science and others.

Many countries haven’t done a good job controlling the pandemic. A number of big-name leaders seemed to willfully “let it rip”. What a mistake…because that is a lot of lottery tickets.

Q: What about the so-called “double mutants”?

We already know that the same mutations can recurrently emerge, independently. The most likely explanation for the ‘double-mutation' (reported in India, for example) is that this E484Q and L452R emerged anew.

103,558

Number of new COVID-19 cases reported in India on April 5, 2021

Phylogenetic analysis, as far as I know, doesn’t suggest that the ‘California' L452R variants B.1.427 + B.1.429 traveled to India and picked up E484Q. But the combo of L452R + E484Q appears to be a relatively newly emergent lineage / variant. Interestingly, it also has P681R. And at least 3 other Spike mutations. So the term “double mutant” is a misnomer.

Copy of 2021-03-27T134645Z_1028188157_RC2PJM97XQ6G_RTRMADP_3_HEALTH-CORONAVIRUS-INDIA-VACCINE-1616929796000
A woman reacts as she receives a dose of COVISHIELD, a coronavirus disease (COVID-19) vaccine manufactured by Serum Institute of India, at a vaccination centre in Ahmedabad, India, March 27, 2021. REUTERS/Amit Dave Image Credit: REUTERS

 

Q: Mutation vs. variant vs. strain: What’s the difference?

 

A variant is an individual “strain” of the virus that has a particular constellation — or set — of mutations. Except, we virologists are largely trying not to use the word “strain”. The better word to use is variant”.

551,956

New COVID-19 cases worldwide, April 4, 2021

Q: Are these really variants of concern, or just “scariants”?

Many of the variants are concerning because they can do things like spread between people who are immune from first-wave viruses due to a previous case of COVID-19 earlier in the pandemic.

Or which can spread between people much faster than the original Wuhan Seafood Market Pneumonia virus from December 2019…B.1.1.7 being the poster child for the latter.

'Scariants' is a cute term for when certain journalists and scientists headline discovery of each and every new variant as if the apocalypse is here. I assure you, it is not.

- Jeremy Kamil, associate professor of Microbiology and Immunology at the Louisiana State University (LSU) Health Shreveport

“Scariants” is a cute term for when certain journalists and scientists headline discovery of each and every new variant as if the apocalypse is here. I assure you, it is not.

Q: Most vaccines, especially mRNA ones, show they’re also effective against new strains, what do you make out of these?

Pretty much all of the vaccines in use can save your life from dying of COVID-19, even if you get infected by a variant. The best vaccine is the one you’re offered first.

This is because it takes about 14-days for your body to build up a repertoire of “memory” — or “adaptive” immune cells specific for a certain virus or other pathogen.

2.85m

number of COVID-19 deaths recorded worldwide, April 4, 2021

The sooner you help it get to work, the sooner you don’t need a doctor injecting you with recombinant antibodies — because you can make your own.

Also, even if your immune response is a little “mismatched” because the vaccine’s version of the Spike doesn’t 100% match the ones in circulating variants of concern, your immune system is dynamic.

US Vaccine
In this March 3, 2021, file photo, Iowa Governor Kim Reynolds gets the Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccine during a news conference at Iowa PBS in Johnston, Iowa. Image Credit: AP

Q: What does “dynamic immune system” mean?

(It means) it can quickly update itself to more effectively fight the new variants. In other words, if your local police force have a slightly blurry picture of a thief or murderer, that is a lot more helpful than them having no idea at all what the enemy looks like. Even if the bad guy puts on a wig, a fake moustache and sunglasses, they’ll eventually catch up to him. That’s why vaccines are so important. They give your body a mugshot of the enemy.

coronavirus teaser
WHAT VACCINES DO: "Even if the bad guy puts on a wig, a fake moustache and sunglasses, they’ll (immune system, 'trained' by vaccines) eventually catch up to him. That’s why vaccines are so important. They give your body a mugshot of the enemy."
“Scariants”?
Numerous variants of the coronavirus have emerged in the last few months. Some variants of concern are called by different names (mostly based on where they first emerged — South Africa, Brazil, UK, California, New York).

There’s a rogue’s gallery of coronavirus “scariants”. Scientists say that reports about them serve more to grab headlines — and scare the public — than to further scientific understanding of the coronavirus.

Some are not very pleased with the fact that variants had been hyped up before careful and comprehensive studies show there’s real cause for alarm.

Specifically, according Scripps evolutionary biologist Kristian G. Andersen, news about about the so-called “California” and “New York variants” are products of “atrocious reporting and sloppy science.”

https://twitter.com/K_G_Andersen/status/1365461953775235073?s=20

Another scientist, Jim Musser, chair of the department of pathology and genomic medicine at Houston Methodist Hospital referring to the inordinate coverage of coronavirus variants, called “mutant porn.”

How important are vaccines?

Vaccines allow our body to build “memory” or “adaptive” immune cells specific for a certain virus or other pathogen. The sooner you get a jab, the sooner it you help your immune systems to get to work, and avoid the need for recombinant antibodies — because you can make your own.

658.95m

number of vaccine doses administered in 51 countries as of April 4, 2021

There’s a growing consensus among experts that as a pathogen (disease-causing agent), SARS-CoV-2 is unlikely to be eradicated any time soon. New variants are expected to appear until the SARS-CoV-2 virus “settles down” and become a mere nuisance — like the common cold. Or much like influenza, the virus could retain its ability to cause severe disease in some segments of the population.

Under this scenario, it could entail the need for regular “booster shots”, like the protocol now with flu jabs. The goal, then, is quickly detect variants that can be addressed by effective vaccines.

Variants of interest/concern: An expert weighs in

Due the pandemic, genome surveillance has gone into high gear across the world. At least three thresholds must be met to determine whether a particular mutation (or series of mutations) leads to something meaningful or is “worrisome”, Dr. Eric Topol, Executive VP of Scripps Research and Editor-in-Chief of Medscape, told WebMD.

  1. Infectiousness (greater ability to infect people)
  2. Virulence (leads more hospitalisations, severe cases and deaths)
  3. Immune-evasion (reinfects previously COVID-infected, or renders vaccines less effective)

"All variants are innocent, until proven guilty,” said Dr Topol. “So far, we really don’t have a variant, or strain, that has all three, which is good. We doubt it would be the ‘monster’. We have one that’s the most troublesome, which is the UK variant, because it has both the issue of transmission or infectiousness by 50% or so, and it also causes more severe or fatal illness. That’s what we have to be worried about.”

In the US, the CDC designates any emerging strains as either of “variants of interest” (VOI) or “variants of concern” (VOC). So far, the CDC has elevated three variants of SARS-CoV-2 to the most concerning category: B.1.1.7, first detected in the UK, B.1.351 from South Africa, and P.1 from Brazil.

Viral mutations
Image Credit: Seyyed dela Llata / Gulf News