Is the discovery of new variants of SARS-CoV-2 expected to impact the transmissibility, clinical course or vaccine efficacy in Covid-19?

To date, the discovery of new variants of SARS-CoV-2 has raised concerns primarily around their association with higher than expected transmission rates, not increased severity, risk of death or impairment in vaccine efficacy. 1-5

The new variants of SARS-CoV-2—first recognized in the U.K (strain B.1.1.7), then South Africa (B.1.351), and now many parts of the world, including US and Canada—seem to be associated with higher rates of transmission without any evidence for more severe disease or hospitalization.3 Based on mathematical models, it is suggested that the new variant may be up to 70% more transmissible than the original virus.1 However, it is important to point out that, to date, there are no published studies that corroborates this finding in laboratory animals and some have questioned whether these new strains are truly more transmissible.1

The B.1.1.7 strain has several mutations involving the spike protein (the surface  protein that attaches to host cells) at least 1 of which (N501Y) seems to improve the virus’s ability to bind to cells.1 Preliminary laboratory studies have also found higher viral replication rates in upper respiratory tract of hamsters when challenged with another SARS-CoV-2 variant with spike protein mutation (D614G) compared to the lungs.4  Both “stickiness” to cells and high replication rates in upper respiratory tract alone may explain more rapid spread of the virus without increased severity of disease.

Preliminary reports also suggest that that antibodies against the original strain  neutralize the B.1.1.7 strain, supporting the efficacy of the current Covid-19 vaccine in protecting against this strain.1

A theoretical concern, however, based on a preprint publication, is the suboptimal binding and neutralization of new strains by commercially available monoclonal antibodies.2

The potential increased transmissibility of new SARS-CoV-2 variants only underscores the importance of public health measure such as masks, social distancing and hand hygiene, now more than ever before!

Bonus Pearl: Did you know that despite lack of clear increase in the severity of disease associated with new variants of SARS-CoV-2, increased rate of transmission will lead to more people getting infected and therefore die from its complications. That’s why, more than ever before, we should double down our efforts to stick to public health measures to mask, social distance and exercise hand hygiene during this critical period of the pandemic. Please spread the word, again!

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References

  1. Reardon S. The U.K. coronavirus mutation is worrying but not terrifying. Scientific American. December 24, 2020. https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/the-u-k-coronavirus-mutation-is-worrying-but-not-terrifying/
  2. Starr TN, Greaney AJ, Addetia A, et al. Prospective mapping of viral mutations that escape antibodies used to treat COVID-19. Bio Rxiv 2020. https://www.biorxiv.org/content/10.1101/2020.11.30.405472v1
  3. CDC. Interim: Implications of the emerging SARS-CoV-2 variant VOC 202012/01. Accessed Jan 12, 2020. https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/more/scientific-brief-emerging-variant.html
  4. Plante JA, Liu Y, Liu J, et al. Spike mutation D614G alters SARS-CoV-2 fitness. Nature. Published online 26, 2020. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/33106671/
  5. Baric RS. Emergence of a highly fit SARS-CoV-2 variant. N Engl J Med 2020; 383;2684-2686. https://www.nejm.org/doi/full/10.1056/NEJMcibr2032888

Disclosures: The listed questions and answers are solely the responsibility of the author and do not necessarily represent the official views of Mercy Hospital-St. Louis or its affiliate healthcare centers. Although every effort has been made to provide accurate information, the author is far from being perfect. The reader is urged to verify the content of the material with other sources as deemed appropriate and exercise clinical judgment in the interpretation and application of the information provided herein. No responsibility for an adverse outcome or guarantees for a favorable clinical result is assumed by the author. Thank you!

Is the discovery of new variants of SARS-CoV-2 expected to impact the transmissibility, clinical course or vaccine efficacy in Covid-19?