Corona virus variant B.1.1.7 continues to mutate


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As if the concern about B.1.1.7 was not big enough, the coronavirus variant now also has the mutation that enables the Brazilian and South African offshoots to partially bypass immunities. It remains to be seen whether this will also make vaccinations less effective. Mutated coronavirus variants are spreading rapidly around the world. In Europe, the Sars-CoV-2 offshoot B.1.1.7, which was first discovered in Great Britain, is currently on the advance, as it is apparently much more infectious than the virus that has prevailed up to now. Now British scientists are discovering that he has accepted the mutation E484K, which, after the South African (B.1.351), was also detected in the Brazilian (P1) variant. There is therefore a risk that the newly mutated B.1.1.7 offshoot is now also less vulnerable to antibodies. This in turn could mean that people who were previously infected can more easily become infected again. The mutation may also make vaccines less effective.

The B.1.1.7 variant with the spike protein E484K was discovered during sequencing in some samples on January 26, according to a report by the British health authority Public Health England. The data do not reveal the possible effects of the additional mutation on vaccinations. However, there is evidence that researchers at Cambridge University made tests with blood samples from 23 vaccinated people for a study on the effectiveness of the Biontech-Pfizer vaccine.

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One of the scientists wrote on Twitter that they generated a „pseudo-virus“ in the laboratory that contained all eight known B.1.1.7 mutations plus the E484K mutation. The researchers then tested how well the sera can neutralize the artificial attackers and found that more antibodies were required for this than with the normal B.1.1.7 variant without additional mutation of the spike protein.

Biontech and Pfizer confident

However, this has not yet proven that the new variant will also limit the effect of the vaccine in reality. An artificial virus is unlikely to be synonymous with a real virus. In addition, the subjects whose blood was drawn for the study had only received the first dose three weeks earlier – so the full vaccination protection was not yet given. In addition, Biontech and Pfizer have already examined the effects of their vaccines against the Brazilian and South African variants in the laboratory using artificially generated viruses. It turned out that the neutralization of the virus with the E484K mutation was „somewhat less“, according to a joint press release by the two companies. However, this „probably does not lead to a significantly reduced effectiveness of the vaccine.“

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The results also indicated that there is no need to develop a new vaccine against the emerging variants. Biontech and Pfizer want to continue to monitor newly emerging Sars-CoV-2 strains and continue to check the effectiveness of the vaccine in vaccinated people in order to quickly adapt their vaccine in an emergency.

„Normal“ escape mutation

Specialists aren’t surprised either by E484K. Because this is probably an escape mutation that occurs when a very high infection rate or a corresponding vaccination rate leads to so-called herd immunity. A mutation takes hold which makes it possible to escape the response of the immune system’s antibody reaction. The variants with the corresponding change then displace those without this special mutation. This is obviously happening with B.1.1.7, which increases its share in the infection process very quickly. This is also shown in the report from Public Health England. At the end of October, the variant was still responsible for a very small part of the infections in Great Britain, in mid-December it was already over half of the infections, now it is more than three quarters.

Something similar can be expected in Germany, as the example of Cologne shows. They sequenced all positive cases in the past week. According to the data scientist Cornelius Roemer, B.1.1.7 has already been detected 80 times in 880 samples, which corresponds to a proportion of 9 percent. The South African variant was discovered 42 times (around 2 percent). Roemer estimates the proportion of B.1.1.7 in Germany at 5 to 15 percent, depending on the region.

You have to react to that, but there is probably no reason to panic. The falling numbers in Great Britain, Ireland and Denmark, among others, show that the mutated variants can also be brought under control with the usual measures. And if miIf the new change to B.1.1.7 should result in a significantly reduced effect of the antibodies, all is not lost.

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The body forms various antibodies, said Friedemann Weber, director of the Institute for Virology at the University of Giessen, the magazine „Spektrum“. He could therefore imagine a slight weakening of the immune response – „but there will still be enough other antibodies that can neutralize the virus.“ This fits in with the results from Biontech / Pfizer. In addition, the immune system also fights the intruders with so-called T cells, which kill infected cells. Follow-up examinations of test subjects after a study by the University Hospital Tübingen had shown that even six months after an infection, these white blood cells still responded strongly to Sars-CoV-2. Weber, however, sees vector vaccines like those from Astrazeneca at an advantage because they stimulate T cells more strongly.

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