Crossing a year now, the pandemic has been changing a lot in our lives. With some new terms joining in every day, thankfully there isn’t much add-on to the most common symptoms like fever, dry cough, and breathing difficulty. Some patients also showed signs of taste and smell loss, nasal congestion, sore throat, nausea, severe headache, etc among others.
But just when we started taking it lightly, scientists discovered a new variant of the coronavirus that causes COVID-19, and since then, other variants have been identified and are under investigation. News about the characteristics of these variants is rapidly emerging and scientists are working to learn more about how easily they commute, whether they could cause more severe illness, and whether currently authorized vaccines are effective to safeguard people against them.
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The virus that causes COVID-19 belongs to a large family of viruses- named after the crown-like spikes prevalent on their surfaces. While scientists are constantly monitoring the changes in the virus, there is a lot going on in our heads around how virus mutation might affect its spread from one person to the other and what happens to people who get affected by it. Here, we have answered some of the most common questions about the new COVID variants including will the COVID-19 vaccines still do their intended job, are there new or different things one should do now to keep their family safe? And a bit about the double mutant virus.
What do we know of the new variants so far?
With a new variant of the virus popping up every now and then, even scientists are in a fix as to their rapid emergence, or whether or not they are riskier than the already existing ones. Like all viruses evolve over a period of time, so does the SARS CoV-2 virus. When any virus replicates itself, it mutates i.e. it changes a little. A virus then with one or more new mutations is known as a variant of that original virus. There are now multiple variants of the Covid virus:
- Beginning fall of 2020, the United Kingdom reported a new variant B.1.1.7, which was considered to be more infectious in comparison to the other existing variants, and it has been reported in India too.
- Another one is the variant from South Africa, called B.1.351. Though initial understanding explains higher viral load for this particular variant, deeper insights on the severity, its transmission, and diagnostics, etc are still being explored. This South African virus has to date been reported in four countries.
- P.1, a new variant from Brazil was detected in travelers from Brazil in Japan in January this year. It contains mutations that affect the variants’ traceability by the antibodies.
The double mutant COVID variant
A “double variant” of the novel coronavirus has been traced by Indian genome researchers in western Maharashtra. In the current scenario, the analysis has shown that the positive samples reported both E484Q and L452R mutations. These double mutants are likely to escape the immune system and confer increased infectivity,” as stated by the health ministry said in a statement.
What various tests can be conducted to know if a person has a new COVID variant?
The COVID-19 RT-PCR continues to remain the gold standard diagnostic test. The samples are collected from the person’s nose and throat with the help of a cotton swab. It is then sent for testing the viral genetic material. The positive result conveys about the COVID-19 infection but not about the variant that has caused the infection. If you want to check if you have had a COVID-19 infection in the past, get an antibody test done.
Is the current COVID-19 vaccine effective against these new variants?
While there has been a lot of research going on in this regard, most experts say, the current COVID-19 vaccines are at least expected to provide some protection against these new variants. The vaccines elicit a broad immune system that covers a multitude of antibodies and cells. Even if a few of the running COVID-19 vaccines prove ineffective, scientists predict they will be able to alter the composition of the vaccine to protect patients from the new variants.
The WHO has set up a dedicated SARS CoV-2 risk monitoring and evaluation framework team to identify and keep a check on the virus variants. They research, evaluate the impact, collect data and analyze the variants in and out in order to be a guiding light for vaccine manufactures around countries.
What measures can be taken to prevent the new variants of the Coronavirus?
Though people may expect some relief from the pandemic with the onset of the vaccination drive, one must not take it lightly. The precautions still remain the same as what was guided since day one, namely social distancing, avoiding crowded gatherings, wearing a mask at all times, coughing or sneezing onto your elbow, and washing/ sanitizing your hands often. These are basic safety measures that the whole population, either vaccinated or not vaccinated, needs to follow to keep us safe from catching the virus especially when we don’t know who all are infected. With a surge in cases nationwide, make sure all of us get our elderly and high-risk people vaccinated. The virus still can be detrimental if caught by those who have preexisting medical conditions, elderly people, or anyone who has a compromised immune system. While it is assumed that we can encounter the second wave in India, follow the measures as recommended by the health experts- get tested well within time, isolate if tested positive, and let us ensure to care for each other at a distance.