As vaccines for the Covid-19 virus are being produced and provided rapidly across the United States , hospitalizations and pandemic cases rapidly drop. According to the U.S. vaccine distribution and administration, as of Feb. 1st, 49.9 million doses have been distributed and 32.2 million administered. While officials ramp up the vaccination progress, U.S. epidemiologists (‘disease detectives’ that collect and analyze data to investigate health issues) have raised concerns about three new strains of the virus that have emerged in the United Kingdom, Brazil, and South Africa. Patients in these regions have been diagnosed with dominant variant strains of the coronavirus.
The virus, a hull around genetic material and proteins that can arguably not even be a living thing, produces more of itself by entering a living cell in the human body.
To make more of itself, the virus connects to a receptor on the membrane of a cell in the intestines, lungs or spleen where it can have the most dramatic effect, to inject its genetic material. The cell, clueless to the invasion, carries out its job by reading the genetic material and reassembling itself. In reassembling, the cell creates more corona particles soon to attack more of the billions of living cells lining organs and mucosa.
Now with millions of body cells infected and billions of viruses swarming, the immune system pours immune cells to fight the viruses. The viruses will also infect the immune cells to create confusion and an overreaction.The immune system will now send way more fighters than it should, wasting its resources and causing damage. The immune system is the body’s defender but it is also quite capable of killing the body. Neutrophiles are one of the immune fighters responsible for doing the most damage. They fire enzymes at the living cells infected with corona destroying as many friends as there are enemies.
Killer T cells will also go into a frenzy with the neutrophiles ordering healthy cells to kill themselves. The more immune cells that arrive to battle, more healthy tissue is killed.
The immune system can slowly regain control by killing most infected cells, intercepting the viruses trying to infect, and cleans up the battleground to make a fresh start for recovery; in most cases. Of course, critical conditions often occur if the body is unable to recover and other illnesses happen; such as pneumonia, fever, respiratory problems etc.
Now, during the copying process in which the virus injects its genetic material into a living cell, specifically by its RNA, it does not always make an exact copy. That is a mutation. When the proteins are copied, in each nucleotide there are codons. Groups of sequences of three letters that instruct the cell to produce one building block of protein called amino acid. Different amino acid combinations means different proteins. A minor change in the three letter codon sequence usually doesn’t affect the outcome of the amino acid then the protein.
Generally mutations are expected because small changes happen often because an exact copy is not always made. Most minor changes or mutations do not have a strong impact on the strain or transmission of the virus. Scientists and epidemiologists are concerned specifically about how a change in the sequence can have a strong impact on the key proteins the corona virus uses to invade cells.
Whether we have a vaccine or not, the virus is always mutating. The fear is that it will have a dramatic mutation that will be out of our hands in eliminating with the current vaccine. The fear is that the vaccine we currently have may not provide immunity for the new strains of covid in the United Kingdom, Brazil, and South Africa. The mutant corona virus identified in the U.K. remains at low levels in the U.S., but it is doubling its cases approximately every ten days. The United States still has time to slow its spread by taking precautions in its earlier stages so it will have a lower peak and therefore shorter elimination period in its removal.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) predicted last month that this new and more contagious strain could be the more dominant strain in our country by March. CDC calls the new strain B.1.1.7. Unfortunately in the United Kingdom, B.1.1.7 has already become the dominant strain. This is by some measure the hardest hit to Europe.
In the U.S., this variant of the virus has made up 3.6% of cases of covid-19 cases in the last week of January. A fairly robust amount of the cases are in California and Florida. The strain doubles about every 12.2 days in California, 9.1 days in Florida, and 9.8 days nationally. Authors of the CDC studying the new strains claim that the strain is growing slower than it has in European countries plausibly because of ‘competition from other more transmissible variants’. Of course data about B.1.1.7 is still sparse and further investigation is needed. B.1.1.7 again represents only one variant demonstrating the capacity for exponential growth. The other new strains found in the other countries are called VOC (variant of concern)- then the significant date.
As new variants of the pandemic emerge, international science collaborations and open data sharing will continue to follow the new variants. This will allow them to better accurately assess them.
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