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All viruses mutate and change over time and the COVID-19 virus is no different. Though some of these changes have minor effects on the virus' properties, some other mutations can make the virus more transmissible and deadly. Now, Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health and MIT researchers have found that a mutation in the Gamma variant (P1) of coronavirus disease is linked to increased mortality. This is the variant that first emerged in Brazil and was earlier known as the Brazilian variant. The World Health Organisation has also dubbed this mutation as a 'variant of concern'. According to the researchers, this new mutation also carries greater transmissibility, higher infection rates, and increased pathogenicity. This study is published in the journal Genetic Epidemiology.
The researchers based their findings on genome-wide association studies (GWAS) methodology. They studied whole-genome sequencing data of SARS-CoV-2 mutations and COVID-19 mortality data to come to this conclusion. The researchers initiated this study last year itself. They looked for links between each mutation of the SARS-CoV-2 virus's single-stranded RNA and mortality in 7,548 COVID-19 patients in Brazil in September 2020. They saw that one particular mutation -- at locus 25,088bp in the virus's genome -- alters the spike protein. This mutation was linked to a significant increase in mortality in COVID-19 patients. The team flagged the variant with this mutation and this was later identified as part of P1 or the Gamma variant or the Brazilian variant as it was earlier known.
Researchers say that the GWAS methodology may provide suitable tools that can be used to analyse potential links between mutations at specific locations in viral genomes and disease outcome. This can enable better real-time detection of new, mor dangerous variants or new viral strains in a pandemic scenario.
The P1 variant first emerged in Brazil in January 2021. Within a few weeks, it went on to cause a significant spike in cases in Manaus, a city in Brazil which was hit hard by the pandemic in May 2020. The researchers assumed that the residents of the city had achieved population immunity because so many people there had developed antibodies for the virus during that initial wave. But instead, much to their consternation, they saw that P1, which has several mutations in the spike protein that the virus uses to attach to and invade a host cell, caused a second wave of infections. It seemed to have higher transmissibility and be more likely to cause death than the earlier variants seen in the area.
We have seen how fast the various strains of COVID-19 travel to different parts of the world. The Delta variant, also earlier known as the Indian double variant, has now become the predominant strain in the UK and the US after causing widespread devastation in India. Any mutation of COVID-19 occurring in any part of the world can travel to other parts and, if it is a virulent strain, cause major disruption in the healthcare scenario in any other part of the globe. It is only a matter of time.
Brazil has more than half a million COVID-19 deaths. The national death toll is 5,00,800. This country occupies second place in the list of countries with more than half a million pandemic deaths. The US occupies first place in this list.
(With inputs from IANS)
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