On November 5th, 2020, the United Kingdom went into lockdown. They were trying to control a spike in Covid-19 cases. And, if you look at the chart of cases, it seemed to work. But, despite having the same lockdown measures, infections in Kent were still rising. In early December, the overall drop in cases led the UK to relax restrictions anyway. And then, the cases went higher than ever before. It wasn’t until around this time that researchers realized that somewhere in Kent, the virus itself had changed. It was a new variant which scientists named ‘B.1.1.7.’ It was more contagious, and it was spreading. By the time scientists named it, it had spread to most of South-East England. Two months later, it had spread to 30 other countries. Five months later, it was the most common virus in the US. Lately, more and more variants are emerging. But why?
Viruses are very simple. They’re basically just a shell of protein surrounding some genetic material: either DNA or RNA. That genetic material is made up of molecules that are represented by a series of letters, like this:
Each part of this code contains instructions to make one specific protein that helps the virus function. A virus has one goal -- to make more of itself. But because it’s so simple, it can’t do that on its own. So, it uses you. Every time a virus infects a person, it uses the cells to make copies of itself. It replicates the complicated code again and again. But eventually, it makes a mistake. That mistake is called a mutation and it slightly changes the instructions for making a new virus. That slightly altered virus is a variant. Since viruses are constantly going through the copying process, it’s normal for them to change over time.
Most of the time, these mutations are harmless or even make the virus weaker. But sometimes, mutations give the virus an advantage over us. Coronaviruses have spike proteins that they use to bind with cells. But that binding isn’t always a perfect fit. So, it doesn’t always get past the cell’s defenses. But the B.1.1.7 (Alpha) variant has multiple mutations on the spike protein. The mutations make it easier for the virus to bind with the cells.
It’s important to remember that the virus doesn’t make its own decisions. It doesn’t create strategies. Mutations are random errors. Alpha, Beta, Gamma, and Delta are considered variants of concern. They all have mutations in the spike proteins. Delta, which has been added to the list recently, is referred to as a ‘Double Mutant.’ This mutation seems to make the virus more transmissible than any other variant. It also helps it to stay bound to the cell and re-infect people who’ve already had Covid-19. These viruses may have evolved to dodge our natural immune system.
Fortunately, the immune response we get from vaccinations is strong. But it doesn’t mean that the virus couldn’t develop enough to evade it. If you give the virus enough time and replicative cycles, it will develop more and more. It could eventually find a solution to the problem we’ve presented it -- the vaccine. As long as the virus continues to spread, it will continue to make copies of itself. So, if we want to stop the variants, we need to stop the virus.
The virus has evolved, but it hasn’t morphed into something unrecognizable. The vaccines we have still protect against the variants. The trouble is, we aren’t getting the vaccines around the world fast enough. This only gives the virus more time to change and ravage areas of the world that are still waiting for vaccinations. The rise of variants is a reminder that the virus still isn’t over, even though it might seem like it is.