The U.K. Coronavirus Variant Has Picked Up Another Worrying Mutation thumbnail

The U.K. Coronavirus Variant Has Picked Up Another Worrying Mutation

The U.K. COVID-19 variant, also known as B.1.1.7, has picked up a new mutation that could make the coronavirus vaccines less effective against this particular strain. 

Experts were already concerned about the U.K. COVID-19 variant because it contains a few mutations that can make it more transmissible, meaning it can spread from person to person more easily than previous strains of the virus. Now it’s picked up a new mutation, called E484K, which was previously detected in the South African coronavirus variant (also called B.1.351), the BBC reports. Researchers working with Public Health England found 11 samples (out of 214,159) in which the B.1.1.7 contained the E484K mutation. 

The Moderna vaccine, the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine, and the Johnson & Johnson vaccine are all less effective (but still generally effective) against the B.1.351 variant, according to recent research. And the E484K mutation, which affects the virus’s spike protein, is thought to be at least partially responsible for this effect. 

For instance, a new study looked at immune responses in serum samples from people after they had received one dose of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine. The results showed that the vaccine performed worse against the B.1.1.7 strain when it had the E484K mutation present compared to the B.1.1.7 strain without that mutation. “Introduction of the E484K mutation [to the B.1.1.7 variant] led to a further loss of neutralizing activity by vaccine-elicited antibodies over that conferred by the B.1.1.7 mutations alone,” the researchers write. 

This study is currently in preprint and under review, meaning it has not completed the peer review process. Also, the researchers collected the serum samples in this study after just one dose of the vaccine. So it’s not clear how this mutation would change the vaccine’s effectiveness after both doses, which are required for the best protection. 

The Public Health England researchers found the E484K mutation in a very small number of cases, but with this recent research the detection of this mutation in the U.K. strain is still a worrying development. For now, experts say our priorities should be ramping up vaccination and reducing the spread of the virus as much as possible because, with more spread, it will have more opportunities to change.

Unfortunately, the E484K mutation being detected in the B.1.1.7 variant “is not a surprise,” Angela Rasmussen, Ph.D., a virologist at Georgetown University Center for Global Health Science and Security, wrote on Twitter. “There’s clear evidence for convergent evolution of E484K in multiple lineages (ie it’s under positive selection). With enough opportunity to replicate, it was only a matter of time. And this virus has had a LOT of opportunities to replicate.”

“The only way to prevent [more mutations like this] is to eliminate transmission. We can’t prevent the virus adapting any other way,” Deepti Gurdasani, M.D., Ph.D, a clinical epidemiologist and statistical geneticist at Queen Mary University of London, wrote on Twitter. “And it’s clear that letting transmission continue at high levels will lead to more adaptation & more mutations with different properties. We can’t afford to take this risk.”

In order to reduce transmission of COVID-19, we will need to double down on the prevention measures we know will help prevent the spread of the virus, such as wearing face masks (especially surgical masks, cloth masks with at least two layers, and N95 respirators), social distancing, avoiding crowds, washing our hands frequently, and getting vaccinated when we can. Together, these measures will help keep our communities safe and go a long way in preventing the virus from mutating in other concerning ways.

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