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The Financial Express

OPINION

Covid-19's variants: How concerning?


Evaly and Fianancial Express Evaly and Fianancial Express
Covid-19's variants: How concerning?

A genomic research team at the Bangladesh Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (BCSIR) has identified a new variant of the Covid-19 pathogen.  The BCSIR scientists say the new strain of the Coronavirus has some similarities with the one found in the UK, while some other scientists of the same field of research hold a different view. However, the BCSIR scientists assured us that the strain they found was not as contagious as the UK's variety that triggered a global alarm.

Even so, the scientist would be keeping a watch on the behaviour of this strain to see how it finally evolves. 

In fact, it is in the nature of a virus to undergo mutations and virologists at the genomic research laboratories across the globe are monitoring it.

At the moment, the Covid-19 being a pathogen of global concern for its devastating impact on human life, scientists everywhere are so keen to know about every twists and turns the virus has been experiencing as it is evolving. Most of such mutations are not of much interest to scientists. The question of concern, if any, should arise only when the virologists keeping track of them feel so.

During copying itself the genes of Corona-type viruses (known as retrovirus, or RNA-virus) undergo frequent mutations. That means during making copies errors may creep in causing some genetic units, or nucleotides (a gene is made of a string of these nucleotides) to copy in wrong order or deletion of a unit and such. The UK-variant, for example, has undergone 14 such mutations causing a change in the proteins that make the virus, while three genetic bits have gone missing (three deletions). 

That the UK-variant has caused some concern is because it has been found to be more active than the older, familiar version of the virus in that it spreads faster among the populace. Scientists have named it VUI-202012/01. Evidently, it is the shortcut for the description, the 'first variant under investigation in December 2000'. Scientists have further found that the section of the virus, the so-called spike protein, has undergone some changes during its replication. It is known that it is the spike protein that the virus uses to attach to human cells to infect them. The mutation is found to have rendered the Corona virus more efficient at reproducing itself and infecting people at a rate that is 50 to 70 per cent faster than the older version. As a result, it has been replacing the existing version of the virus and has become the dominant one in London and in the South and South-East England.

The UK authorities have imposed stricter control measures to check further transmission of the virus. The extra caution is taken because health experts are still not quite sure if this faster strain of the virus is also more harmful or not. The cause for concern, if any, is that it is harder to control as its mobility is higher. The same variant of the Coronavirus has also been spotted in many European countries and even in Australia,  Japan and Canada.

The South African variant of the virus, on the other hand, has been termed 'highly concerning' by the UK's health secretary Matt Hancock. South African scientists say their data show, like the UK variant, it is also highly transmissible. And the mutation in that variety has also taken place in the gene that holds the key to the 'spike protein', which basically latches the virus on to the body cells.

Now the question is-- will the vaccines that have already been developed be effective against this mutated variant of the Corona virus? Most experts believe it will be at least in the short term.  But that is also true of the effect of the vaccines on the older variety of the virus!

So, to avoid unnecessary alarm, health experts in Bangladesh would do well to keep the public informed of certain basics on the virus's behaviour.

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