What defines a mutation?
A mutation is generally understood as an alteration in the genetic material of a virus. Coronavirus which is classified as an RNA virus has proteins made up of a sequence of amino acids. The virus which is not even visible to a naked eye possesses as many as 30000 base pairs which are structured in the same fashion as that of a wall made up of bricks. Any change in the pattern of the structure of the base pairs is termed as an alteration which also brings major changes in the shape and behaviour of the virus.
In the new variant traced in the United Kingdom, one of its mutations termed N501Y has been claimed to have a better ability to bind with the human proteins. According to the Indian Express report, the alphabet N in the mutation’s name signifies a particular kind of amino acid and the number 501 is the order at which the mutation is placed in the structure of base pairs. The addition of Y at the end of the mutation signifies that the amino acid named N has been replaced with the amino acid Y making the strain more capable of binding with the human protein. The faster spread of the new variant could be gauged from the fact that over 60 percent of the recent infections in the capital city of London have been caused by the new variant. The spread of the similar variant of Coronavirus has also been reported from several countries including South Africa and Australia.
Are not there several other mutations of Coronavirus?
Several mutations of a virus is a common phenomenon, however, the majority of the mutations do not cause any alteration in the encoded structure of proteins. Such mutations are defined as synonymous mutations which form the similar amino acid and show no change in the shape and behaviour of the virus. The second kind of mutations which alter the encoded structure of the proteins are classified as non-synonymous mutations.
In the particular variant which has been responsible for the recent spurt in the number of Coronavirus cases, the scientists have found there are six synonymous alterations and fourteen non-synonymous mutations. In addition to the mutations, the new variant also contains three deletions which means the amino acids have been removed from the structure. According to the scientists at the World HEalth Organisation, in addition to the mutation N501Y, the other two mutations which could result in the spike of infection rates are P681H and HV 69/70.
How lethal are P681H and HV 69/70?
The P681H mutation has been located at the amino acid present at 681 in the structure. In the case of this mutation, the amino acid named P has been replaced by amino acid named H. The WHO has termed this mutation of biological significance as the mutation has emerged spontaneously multiple times. Researchers have also found that the new mutation can easily gain entry into the respiratory epithelial cells.
As far as the mutation HV 69/70 is concerned, the mutation has resulted from the deletion of the amino acid from the structure at position 69 and 70. This deletion has been traced in the Coronavirus cases that have come to light in France and South Africa. The WHO has also said that the mutation HV 69/70 has the capability to affect the RT-PCR testing as well and may go undetected in the tests. The WHO also added that the impact of the new mutation on the RT-PCR testing being deployed worldwide is expected to be minimal. To further assuage the concerns of the medical practitioners, the scientists have highlighted the fact that the detection of the new variant for the first time in the United Kingdom also came to light during a RT-PCR test only.
Can the new variant and mutations impact the effectiveness of Coronavirus vaccines?
Most health experts and scientists have said that the fears of the new variant impacting the vaccine development are unfounded. The WHO also said that at this stage there is no information to prove that the new variant has been able to bring a change in the severity of the disease, antibody response and vaccine efficacy.