A patient arrives at 28 de Agosto Hospital in Manaus, Amazonas, Brazil on January 14, 2021 amid the novel coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic. Manaus faces a lack of oxygen and sleeping places as the city has been overrun by a second surge in COVID-19 cases and deaths.
MICHAEL DANTAS | AFP | Getty Images
LONDON – A new variant of coronavirus identified in Brazil has heightened concern among public health experts, leading to warnings that more new strains are likely to emerge.
The news of the variant in Brazil comes after two separate mutant strains of the virus were discovered in the UK and South Africa earlier this year.
Researchers are urgently investigating the variants of Covid that are believed to have similar characteristics in order to better understand the threat they pose.
Viruses mutate naturally, and there is no evidence that the newly discovered strains have more serious disease outcomes.
However, the Covid variants are believed to be more transmissible than the original variant that triggered the pandemic, and this could lead to higher numbers of serious infections and additional deaths.
Health officials have recommended washing hands, physically distancing yourself, and using personal protective equipment to prevent the virus from spreading.
What is known about the variant found in Brazil?
Earlier this month, the Japanese National Institute of Infectious Diseases (NIID) announced that it had discovered a new variant of Covid in four travelers from the Brazilian state of Amazonas on January 2.
A man in his forties who was found to be asymptomatic when he arrived in Japan was hospitalized because his breathing condition was deteriorating. A woman in her thirties reported a sore throat and headache, a man between 10 and 19 years of age had a fever, and a young woman over 10 was asymptomatic.
This variant of the virus belongs to the strain B.1.1.248 and, according to the NIID, has 12 mutations in the spike protein. Spike proteins are used by the virus to enter cells in the body.
On January 14, 2021, nurses chatting outside 28 de Agosto Hospital in Manaus, Amazonas, Brazil amid the novel coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic.
MICHAEL DANTAS | AFP | Getty Images
NIID said it was difficult to immediately determine how contagious the new strain is and how effective vaccines against it are.
To date, Brazil has registered more than 8.3 million Covid cases and 207,000 virus deaths, according to Johns Hopkins University. The South American country is the second largest country for Covid-related deaths worldwide after the US.
The UK on Friday imposed a ban on travelers from South America (and Portugal and Cape Verde) to deter people from bringing the new variant into the country.
The country’s Secretary of Transportation, Grant Shapps, told the BBC this was a precautionary measure. He added that scientists believe the coronavirus vaccines will work on the new variant.
“We looked very closely at this particular mutation, unlike many other thousands, and realized that there might be a problem, not so much that the vaccine isn’t working. In fact, scientists believe it will work, just the fact is more spreadable, “said Shapps, according to Reuters.
On Thursday, British chief advisor Patrick Vallance told ITV that there was a “slightly greater risk” of the vaccine’s effectiveness with regard to the Covid variant identified in Brazil.
What about the mutant strains in the UK and South Africa?
On December 14th, the UK health authorities reported a variant to the WHO identified as SARS-CoV-2 VOC 202012/01. It is unclear how the new strain came about, but preliminary results have shown that it is highly infectious.
It originally appeared in the south east of England, but has since been the dominant variety in much of the UK and has spread to more than 50 other countries. Numerous nations then imposed bans on travelers from Great Britain.
Healthcare professionals wearing personal protective equipment (PPE) enter a makeshift ward devoted to treating possible COVID-19 coronavirus patients at the Steve Biko Academic Hospital in Pretoria on January 11, 2021.
Phill Magakoe | AFP | Getty Images
Independently of this, the national authorities in South Africa announced the detection of the variant 501Y.V2 on December 18. Preliminary studies have shown that variant 501Y.V2 also increases portability. It has since reportedly been found in at least 20 other countries.
The variants that emerged separately both share a genetic mutation in the spike protein.
What happens next?
Studies are currently ongoing to understand the transferability and severity of the newly discovered variants of Covid, as well as their possible effects on vaccines.
After approximately 10 months of relative inactivity, “we have seen a remarkable evolution of SARS-CoV-2 with a repeated evolutionary pattern in the worrying SARS-CoV-2 variants from the UK, South Africa and Brazil.” Dr. Trevor Bedford, a virologist and associate professor at the University of Washington, said Thursday via Twitter.
Bedford, who also works with Fred Hutch’s vaccines and infectious diseases division, warned that the hypothesis was “highly speculative” at the time. “But separately, the fact that we’ve seen three worrying variants since September suggests that more are likely to follow.”
To date, more than 93.2 million people worldwide have contracted Covid-19 with 1.99 million deaths.
Professor Devi Sridhar, Chair of Global Public Health at the University of Edinburgh, said on Friday the world has “become the playground of the virus to mutate and develop (especially) in countries that have allowed higher prevalence”.