February 4, 2021, by Brigitte Nerlich
Mutation, vaccination, communication
It is extremely difficult to keep up with pandemic news at the moment. We are now a year into the Covid-19 pandemic and instead of just running away from the virus through social distancing, we are now engaging in a race with it through vaccination. Whether we will win the race depends on how many people get vaccinated, but also, crucially, on how much people still stay at home, that is, run away from the virus. The more distance we keep from the virus, and that means other people, the better.
This is especially important in a period when not that many people are vaccinated and when the virus still has a chance to mutate and evolve in such a way that vaccines may become ineffective.
The more we mingle, the more opportunities the virus has to jump from person to person, and the more people it can infect, the more copies it can make of itself, the more mistakes can creep in, the more mutations emerge and the more new variants of the virus have a chance to evolve over time. This is evolution in action – and it never lets up, unless we erect barriers that prevent the virus from jumping. As Matthew Cobb pointed out in a tweet: “There are zillions of viruses out there being copied; mistakes (= mutations) happen, some of them favour the virus and are then selected” and a new virus variant emerges. He also added something interesting: “Some mutations may be more likely than others.”
Everybody knows about the new virus variants that have been found in Kent, Brazil and South Africa. These variants all have characteristic mutations: the Kent one carries the N501Y mutation for example and the South African one the N501Y mutation and the E484K one. N501Y makes the virus easier to transmit; E484K makes the virus more able to evade the immune system, and so on. Interestingly, E484K, first seen in the South African variant (also found in the Brazilian variant P1), seems to be more likely than others to evolve (on convergent evolution of viruses, see Carl Zimmer here).
Changes have now been detected in the Kent variant (B.1.1.7) and the original Wuhan variant. They have acquired the same mutation as the South African variant, namely E484K in addition to their own mutations. For the Kent variant that means it now has two significant mutations, one older one that makes it more transmissible (N501Y) and another new one that enables it to potentially evade the immune system (E484K).
It’s difficult to keep track not only of what’s going on with variants, but also to keep track of the names for variants and mutations, let alone ‘the science’ behind it all, including the social science, for example the issue of stigma.
I was listening to the BBC radio 4 pm programme on 2 February, when I hard James Gallagher, a BBC health correspondent, explain the difference between two important mutations. The mutation (N501Y) that was discovered in the Kent variant in December last year makes the virus more transmissible. He therefore called it the ‘go faster mutation’. The mutation (E484K) that was discovered in the South African variant might enable the virus to evade the immune system. He therefore called it the ‘dodge the immune system mutation’. That was great science communication. From now on, I’ll know what’s what!
Scientists have now discovered, as we have seen, that the Kent variant has mutated in such a way that it has both the ‘go faster’ and the ‘dodge the immune system’ mutations. That’s obviously not good and might impact on how vaccines work against the virus.
If we want vaccines to continue working, we have to stop the virus from doing its own work. We have to prevent it from spreading, replicating and accumulating mutations.
This means, as I have said at the beginning, putting a barrier between us and the virus. This can be done by controlling our borders and our bodies. As Bill Hanage has pointed out after the discovery of the ‘dodge the immune system’ mutation emerging independently in the Kent virus: “viruses of concern don’t only come from overseas. They can be generated in our own communities and the more transmission happens, the more likely that is”.
To stop transmission not only at national borders but at the borders of our bodies, we have two options. Keeping bodies apart or making bodies immune through vaccination. The more vaccinated bodies there are within and beyond our national borders the less chances the virus has to transmit, replicate, mutate etc. We are only safe when we are all safe.
One barrier that still needs some work is communication. I think there is not yet enough good communication that enables people to understand the links between mutation, variation, evolution, vaccination and, importantly, between science and social interaction. The way James Gallagher spoke about the mutations was great. That really brought home what viruses do and what science has done to discover this. But we still need better communication about what that means for what we do.
This article by Erin Ross for Oregon Public Broadcasting is really good at setting out the current science and talking about what people can do. And this one by Carl Zimmer for the New York Times is a great explainer of how viruses mutate and spread (written in April last year!). Do you have any other examples like that? I’d be really interested to see them.
PS Added 15 February 2021: After publishing this post, I found this extremely interesting article by Adam Rogers in Wired on the naming of variants issue which also points out something else which confused me: “A mutant is a living thing, or a virus, that has in its genetic code mutations, differences from the ‘wild type’ genotype of the organism, acquired via errors and selective pressures. A variant is a mutant, and technically a strain is a variant with a markedly different phenotype”… etc. Read it!
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