Voices Anand Neelakantan Anuja Chandramouli Sathya Saran Ravi Shankar S Vaidhyasubramaniam Sadhguru Jaggi Vasudev MAGAZINE Buffet People Wellness Books Food Art & Culture Entertainment NEW DELHI january 17 2021 SUNDAY PAGES 12 5 QUICK FACTS ON SARS-COV-2 MUTATION 1 SARS-CoV-2 is an RNA virus, like flu and measles. These are more prone to mutations than DNA viruses (herpes and smallpox). 2 The virus has “proofreading” proteins to catch random genetic mistakes while copying. Probably why the rate of mutation is low. 3 It has 29 genes and just under 30,000 genetic alphabet. The most common mutations are single letter changes. 4 5 The virus has gone through 2 single-letter mutations per month—a rate of change about half that of influenza and one-quarter that of HIV Despite the slow mutation rate, researchers have catalogued more than 12,000 mutations in its genomes already Mutant Vs Vaccinator As the coronavirus mutates, high-speed vaccines play terminator. This deadly warfare raises more questions about survival than providing answers. Meanwhile, scientists warn of new viral outbreaks in the near future. By Damayanti Datta I nside the dark caverns of the human body, a war is on. Nano-sized, silent and invisible to the naked eye, but brutal and singularly cunning. A viral predator is planning to storm the body’s citadels: the cells. Covert operations are underway The virus is undulating its spikes, like balloons on a . string. Each spike is coated with sugar—the primordial molecule—to trick the cells into believing what’s landing is safe. The camouflage works: cells pop open. Even the powerful soldiers of the body’s immune system miss the malignant presence. With the potent protein of its spikes the virus breaks in, to hijack, plunder and infect the cells. In a matter of hours, virus particles appear in every teaspoon of the victim’s blood. An ancient warfare between mankind and pathogens, that has turned a new page in modern times. A novel coronavirus, SARS-CoV-2, is on an unstoppable march. In the last one year, it has brought the planet to a grinding halt with a new kind of pandemic illness, Covid-19, afflicting 88 million people worldwide, with 1.9 million fatalities, reports the latest data from Johns Hopkins University . But it’s not content to live the peaceful life of genetic stability It is changing and . shape-shifting—a process called mutation (see graphic)— into newer and faster-spreading variants. The world is sitting up and asking: what’s going on? Should we be worried? What exactly does it mean for us? If logistics is the lynchpin of modern warfare, the virus has also triggered one. Here the combatants are not just the vaccines and vaccine-makers, but nations—the US, China, Russia and other European nations—racing against time to develop the vaccines of first choice against the novel coronavirus. Pharma, usually seen as the most risk-averse industry, has taken the greatest risk by coming forward to give the world a vaccine in record time. The news about mutant strains and the possibility that they might become resistant to some of the current vaccines, has created another flutter. They have been tracking every change the virus makes to buy the time needed to shift vaccine targets before SARS-CoV-2 leaps too far ahead. The good news is: two of the top vaccine developers, Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna, are using a platform—the mRNA technology—that enables the companies to produce new shots without lengthy developing and testing. SHOULD WE WORRY? On December 20, when 326 Indians took off from the UK for Kolkata, no one knew their fate. They were to get away from a new, mutant variant of coronavirus, reportedly 70 percent more infectious, that’s doing the rounds in the UK. What they faced on arrival was the Covid drill, and screening with rapid tests. All the passengers were declared Covid-free, except one: a young man, who showed no symptoms and needed no treatment. Days later, however, genome sequencing at the National Institute of Biomedical Genomics, Kalyani, revealed the same hallmark mutations as the UK Covid strain. He was the 20th person infected with it in India. What sent ripples of dread and dismay around the city was his confession: he had come in contact with 590 people since his return. How many of them were well, ill or in between? No one really knows. Officially, there are about a 100 Indians infected with mutant strains now. WHAT’S GOING ON? The covert warfare of the virus slows down the body’s defence reaction, but it catches up and soon mounts a massive firepower of antibodies: to combat, destroy, target, stalk, kill or neutralise the invaders and also to orchestrate healing. Some infected cells commit suicide to save the body, some are removed. Some cells record enemy patterns to memory for future recall, so the same virus cannot evade detection and destruction again—unless it changes dramatically as a new strain. Sometimes, just sometimes, the immune operation goes on an overdrive, off-kilter, inflicting heavy collateral damage. Often, this response is what makes a person sick. To Dr Balram Bhargava, the Director-General of the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR), “It’s immune pressure that is making the virus evolve.” And because viruses evolve quickly the few drugs , and vaccines scientists do manage to develop don’t always work for long. Viruses mutate again and again to survive, to avoid the intense reaction of the immune system and the onslaught of drugs and vaccines. “It’s still a work in progress,” as Dr Anthony Fauci, immunologist and lead member of the US Coronavirus Task Force, said in an online lecture last year: “I thought HIV was a complicated disease in its protean manifestations. It’s really simple compared to what’s going on with Covid-19.” Turn to page 2 Vaccines Developed in Record Time, But Can They Keep Us Against Mutant Strains? Vaccine mRNA-1273 By Moderna, US biotech firm Type mRNA-based vaccine dosage Two doses, 28 days apart For US, Canada, EU, UK, Switzerland, Israel efficacy 94.1% Effect of mutant strains? Moderna expects that the immunity induced by its Covid-19 vaccine would be protective against coronavirus variants. “We plan to run tests to confirm the activity of the vaccine against any strain,” said its statement. Vaccine Comirnaty (BNT162b2) By Pfizer and BioNTech Type mRNA-based vaccine started January 2020 Dosage Two doses, 28 days apart For US, Canada, EU, UK, Switzerland, Israel Efficacy 95% Effect of mutant strains? New research suggests their vaccine can protect against mutation found in the two variants that have erupted in Britain and South Africa Vaccine CoronaVac By Sinovac Biotech Ltd, China type Inactivated vaccine Dosage Two doses, 14-28 days apart For China, Brazil, Chile, Indonesia, Philippines efficacy 78% Effect of mutant strains? “The vaccine is safe, and we can use it with ease,” according to company statement Vaccine Covid-19 Vaccine AstraZeneca (AZD1222)/Covishield By AstraZeneca and University of Oxford, the Serum Institute of India Type Adenovirus vaccine Dosage Two doses, between 4-12 weeks apart For UK, India, Argentina, Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Mexico, Morocco Efficacy Shown mixed results; was 90% effective when a half-dose was given before a full-dose booster, while two full doses showed an efficacy of 62% Effect of mutant strains? “AZD1222 contains the genetic material of the SARS-CoV-2 virus spike protein, and the changes to the genetic code seen in this new viral strain do not appear to change the structure of the spike protein.” (Reuters report) Vaccine Covaxin By Bharat Biotech with Indian Council of Medical Research, India’s National Institute of Virology Type Whole virion inactivated Dosage Two doses, 14-28 days apart For India Effect of mutant strains? “Potential of Covaxin to mount resistance against mutants of SARS-Cov-2, the virus causing Covid-19, informed the decision making process for vaccine approval,” according to ICMR notification Vaccine Sputnik V By Gamaleya Research Institute, Russia (collaboration with Dr. Reddy’s Laboratories) Type Adenoviral vaccine Dosage Two doses, 28 days apart For China, Brazil, Chile, Indonesia, Philippines Efficacy 91.4% (on day 28 of first dose) and over 95% (on day 42 of second dose) Effect of mutant strains? “Sputnik V will be as highly effective against the new strain of the coronavirus found in Europe as against the existing strains. Sputnik V has been showing its efficacy over a period of time despite the previous mutations of S-protein,” according to Sputnik V’s Twitter handle.
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