When the coronavirus SARS-CoV-2 (Covid-19) burst upon the world last winter, scientists were not anticipating the virus to mutate frequently. The new coronavirus is an RNA virus: a collection of genetic material packed inside a protein shell. Once an RNA virus comes in contact with a host, it starts to make new copies of itself that can go on to infect other cells. In the coronavirus, these mutations happen in the form of deletion and occur from changes in the spikes proteins or outward protrusions on the surface of the virus. These spike proteins act as receptor-binding proteins, which behave as cell “invaders.” Scientists are worried about extreme changes to the virus’s spike proteins. A large mutation in this virus would cause a significant change in these spike proteins’ shape. A significant mutation would make vaccines less effective because the new spike protein shape may allow it to bind to the cell. Consequently, vaccinations would have to be updated more frequently, similar to how the flu vaccine has to be updated once in a while.
Several countries such as South Africa, Denmark, Japan, and Brazil all reported detecting slightly different Covid variants. One of the most alarming variants is called B.1.1.7. Experts say that this variant has an increased risk of death. The B.1.1.7 variant was first detected in a patient in Kent, England, in September of 2020. It quickly spread to London. According to Msn, the U.K.’s Prime Minister Boris Johnson said, “It’s been both frustrating and alarming to see the speed with which the new variant is spreading.” Early analysis of this mutation mentioned that in addition to being more deadly, this strain of Covid-19 is also 50 – 70 percent more transmissible. This higher virus transmission rate will likely lead to a collapse in the overburdened healthcare system as there are currently shortages of hospital beds, ventilators, intensive care units, and staff. Moreover, the B.1.1.7 virus entered several countries, including the United States of America where this variant is spreading rapidly. The Center of Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has warned that this mutation could become the predominant source for all infections in the United States by March. The CDC is working around the clock to monitor variants using genome research and other advanced mechanisms.
Another alarming variant is called B.1.351. Informally known as the “South African” variant, this highly transmissible variant was first detected in early December of 2020 and later in the United States on January 28, 2021. In a recent interview on CNBC, Scott Gottlieb, the former director of the FDA said, “The South Africa variant is very concerning right now because it does appear that it may obviate some of our medical countermeasures, particularly the antibody drugs.” In other words, this mutation may challenge the current treatments in place to help contain and limit the spread of this virus.
On February 16th, Mass.gov.com wrote, “The Massachusetts Department of Public Health (DPH) today announced the first case of the B.1.351 COVID-19 variant identified in the Commonwealth. Genetic sequencing completed at the Broad Institute on behalf of DPH has confirmed the variant, which was originally identified in South Africa”. In addition, CBS Boston wrote, “The Massachusetts Department of Public Health announced there are 19 more cases of the coronavirus B.1.1.7 variant in the state. Now there’s more than 29 cases of the variant in Massachusetts, which was originally found in the United Kingdom”. The B.1.1.7 variant was detected mostly in Worcester and Norfolk Country. Msn.com stated,“In addition…there have been six in Norfolk County, two in Middlesex County, two in Plymouth County, one in Suffolk County and one in Hampden County”. Wellesley (Norfolk Country) was one of the towns the B.1.1.7 variant was found. With this variant’s high infection rate, the fact that it is in Wellesley means that it poses a significant threat to surrounding towns like Concord. Thus, as students and faculty at CA we must strictly adhere to Covid guidelines: practicing social distancing, routinely receiving our Covid-tests, wearing masks, and always remembering to use hand sanitizer.