• Ayudra Fitrananda

The New B.1.1.7 Variant from Britain

The 11th of March 2021 marked the anniversary of COVID-19 as a global pandemic announced by the World Health Organization (WHO) last year. Throughout this past year, many things have occurred seemingly overnight: the rapid development of vaccines, decreasing death rate, the shift to virtual events and activities, among many other things, which have proven our ability to adapt to new conditions at such a fast rate. However, as we grow and adapt, the SARS-CoV-2 virus also seems to adapt well to the ever-changing environment.



Scientists have detected several new strains of SARS-CoV-2, as reported by the CDC. One of the recently emerging strains is the B.1.1.7 which was first detected in the United Kingdom in Sept. 2020. This particular strain has another 13 mutations, and after its first case, quickly became the dominant circulating SARS-CoV-2 variant in the UK.


The mutation found in B.1.1.7, occurs in a very vital part of the virus called the spike (S) protein. This variant may also include deleting protein parts in positions 69 and 70 that also occur in other variants of SARS-CoV-2. The S protein mutation enhances the virus’ ability to bind to the human receptor protein, thus making it easier for it to enter into the human cells and promoting a quick transmission from person to person. It was estimated that the new virus is 1.5 times more contagious compared to current variants.


Although insignificant, the previously mentioned deletion of positions may cause a change in the performance of some diagnostic tools like RT-PCR (which is a diagnostic tool that targets specific DNA to detect infection of the virus) and possibly a slight reduction in the ability of our antibodies. These effects are due to the diagnostic tools and antibodies' inability to target the mutated S protein, an event that is termed S Gene Target-Failure (SGTF). Even though SGTF increases the risks associated with catching this strain of the virus, it has also become the main key to identify B.1.1.7 cases among other strains that have 69 and 70 positions deleted.


The New and Emerging Respiratory Virus Threats Advisory Group (NERVTAG) in the UK analyzed that the new strain may increase disease severity and risk of death, especially in cases with SGTF. It was also suggested that individuals infected with B.1.1.7 had a longer period of acute infection but with a similar peak of viral load compared to other variants. However, these findings still require further investigation with larger samples.


In the 23rd of Feb. issue of the COVID-19 Weekly Epidemiological Update from the WHO, a total of 101 countries reported having B.1.1.7 transmission, with 62 of them already having community transmission - meaning that they are unable to confirm all related cases through contact tracing or routine sampling due to the large number of cases occurring. The US also reported having a B.1.17. community transmission with a total of 1661 cases from 44 states.


A month after, on the 30th of March, the WHO reported an additional 29 countries with the B.1.1.7 transmission. Thus, as of the 30th of March, there are a total of 130 countries with the B.1.1.7 variant, with 120 of them reporting community transmission and the other ten are still under verification for community transmission. However, the March update did not report the total cases of this variant in the US.


The WHO also stated that there are no significant effects of this new strain on the Moderna, Pfizer-BioNTech, and Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccines. It is unclear what effects it has on the Johnson & Johnson and Novavax vaccines and further research is needed to determine that. However, vaccination is still seen as the best method to tackle this pandemic.


Currently, the difference between the clinical outcomes of the B.1.1.7 variant and the other variants is still under investigation, but the increase of transmissibility has the potential to lead to more cases, increasing the number of people that need to be medically treated and adds more burden to the already strained health care system. Basically, the escalating number of cases implies the need for further compliance of global citizens to public health relief strategies that comprise vaccination, physical distancing, wearing masks and isolation, and quarantine.

 

Speaking Plainly:

  • B.1.1.7 is the new strain of SARS-CoV-2 from the UK, and reportedly has 13 other mutations within this lineage.

  • The B.1.1.7 strain has higher transmissibility compared to other variants.

  • There are a total of 130 countries reported with B.1.1.7 cases, and 120 of them have community transmission.

  • Some vaccines including Moderna, Pfizer-BioNTech, and Oxford-AstraZeneca are not affected significantly by the new strain.

  • Public health mitigation strategies and enhanced surveillance of cases are needed to limit the spread of SARS-CoV-2 and achieve public protection from the virus.