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Will mass vaccination work its magic on COVID-19 variants? Experts paint a scary picture

Delta subvariant A.Y 4.2

Mutated COVID-19 viruses are less susceptible to inhibition by antibodies from recovered or vaccinated individuals. Read on to know more.

Written by Jahnavi Sarma |Published : March 28, 2021 4:32 PM IST

After holding the entire world to ransom for more than a year, the COVID-19 virus has thrown a new challenge to scientists across the world. It has mutated. This was expected and very much in character as all viruses mutate. But the scary news in all this is that nobody knows how the current vaccines against the virus, which governments round the world are busy administering on citizens, will work on the variants. Now researchers the German Primate Center -- Leibniz Institute for Primate Research and Jan M nch of the Ulm University Medical Centre claim that they have found that the COVID-19 variants B.1.351, from South Africa, and P.1, from Brazil, are no longer inhibited by an antibody used for COVID-19 therapy. In addition, these variants are less efficiently inhibited by antibodies from recovered patients and vaccinated individuals.

Importance of vaccination negated by variants

As nations across the globe try to tame the unpredictable viral disease, testing and vaccination are the two tools that are increasingly being used in the hope that it will help control the pandemic. No doubt, there are hiccoughs. But everybody believes that mass and universal vaccination is the only thing that can protect humanity from this unprecedented viral threat. But in the time that it took to develop the vaccine, the COVID-19 virus has mutated several times and today this is again a new challenge for scientists who worked hard to develop vaccines against it. The variants B.1.1.7 from the United Kingdom, B.1.351 from South Africa and P.1 from Brazil are spreading rapidly. These viruses have mutations in the so-called spike protein, the structure on the surface of the virus that is responsible for attachment to host cells. At the same time, the spike protein is also the major target of the immune response. Antibodies generated in response to infection or vaccination bind to the spike protein, thereby blocking the virus.

Expect incomplete protection, say experts

According to the researchers, the SARS-CoV-2 variants B.1.351 and P.1 are no longer inhibited by an antibody used for COVID-19 therapy. In addition, these variants are less efficiently inhibited by antibodies from recovered patients and vaccinated individuals. Thus, convalescence from COVID-19 as well as vaccination may offer only incomplete protection against these mutant viruses. SARS-CoV-2 viruses invade lung cells in order to multiply. For the virus to enter a cell, it must first attach to the cell surface. For this, the virus uses its so-called spike protein, which is located on the viral envelope. The spike protein is also the target for therapies and vaccines aimed at preventing the virus from replicating in the body.

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Mutations in spike proteins a cause of worry

According to researchers, the virus that caused the pandemic was relatively stable initially. But then it started mutating. Now this is expected. But the worrying thing is that the mutations are occurring on the spike protein. Current therapies and vaccines target this spike protein. The rapid spread of variants may not be efficiently inhibited by antibodies in the current vaccination strategy.

UK variant may be easier to control

But, on a positive note, the researchers found that certain antiviral agents that block host cell entry and are in (pre)clinical development inhibit the mutant viruses just as well as the original virus. Variant B1.1.7, which is currently spreading rapidly in Germany, was also efficiently inhibited by antibodies, including antibodies induced by vaccination. They also say that an antibody used for COVID-19 therapy did not inhibit variants B.1.351 and P.1. Moreover, these variants were less well inhibited by antibodies from convalescent or vaccinated individuals, they partially bypassed the neutralizing effect of the antibodies.

(With inputs from Agencies)

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