Oh good. A new variant of Covid-19. <party emoji>
If it seems like we haven’t had one of those for a while, it’s because we haven’t. Well, not an interesting one, anyway. This one though – sadly – is of interest.
Why? Well, it has 35 mutations on its spike protein. That’s the bit that our immune system recognises. 35 mutations means that it’s likely to be disguised (at least partially) from our immune systems, meaning that we’re more likely to become infected with it: even if we’ve had the vaccine or if we’ve had Covid (of any variant) previously. It doesn’t mean that we won’t have any defence against it though. More likely just a bit of a slower, poorer one.
We don’t know a lot at the moment: we’re not really looking for Covid as much as we have been before, so this could be sneaking in a bit under our radar. We’ve only seen 9 cases* in 5 countries, which seems like nothing, but at least 6 of those cases have no travel history, suggesting that they acquired the virus locally to them. It can’t just have appeared from nowhere: that indicates community spread.
And those 9 cases (UK, Demark, USA, Israel, and now South Africa) show very similar genetic sequences. That means that they haven’t had much time to mutate or change, and that indicates a rapid spread.
We’re not seeing millions of hospital admissions though, which might (hopefully) mean that this is not going to cause serious illness or mortality. But it’s likely there just isn’t enough of it yet for that to be a foregone conclusion. It is being found in wastewater screening, which probably means that there is a growing reservoir of undetected cases out there.
Honestly, scientists have been waiting for the next wave. There was never any chance of Covid just going away. And we’re still (yes wow, “still”, even after 3½ years, lol), in the early equilibrating days of what will almost certainly be a long-term virus/human relationship. Each party is still weighing up its opponent and figuring out its next move. Metaphorically, at least.
It remains to be seen if this variant will trigger a new public health crisis or will fall away without troubling us too much. At this point, the jury simply doesn’t have enough information to make any decision, and so we wait and we keep learning from the information we can get.
At the moment, it’s very much watch this space. And maybe hope for a not guilty verdict.
* I had to update this figure twice while writing this post.