by NUR HAZIQAH A MALEK and HARIZAH KAMEL/ graphic by MZUKRI MOHAMAD
THERE is a high possibility of new Covid-19 strains reaching Malaysia as the nation’s borders remain open for returning citizens.
Last week, the Health Ministry announced that it had identified a new Covid-19 strain dubbed the A701B in the country, taken from samples in Sabah.
Osel Group chief clinical and innovative scientist Dr Kris See told The Malaysian Reserve that it is currently unknown whether the strain — which is similar to that found in South Africa, Australia and the Netherlands — is more infectious than usual.
He said similarly in the UK, the coronavirus mutation, known as N501Y, is 70% more infectious, to the point that most European countries have denied entry for travellers from the UK.
“Medical professionals are closely watching the constant mutation of the virus.
“The coronavirus is certainly in a state of constant mutation, affecting its spike proteins and stopping antibodies from recognising the virus,” Dr See said.
Pantai Hospital Kuala Lumpur internal medicine specialist Dr Helmy Haja Mydin said the strain does appear to be more infectious, but not virulent, meaning that it is dangerous in terms of infection rate, but not hostile in terms of symptoms.
“However, this is very problematic because it means that it is easier for people to catch the virus.
“With increased numbers, we run the risk of adding more burdens to the already-stretched healthcare service,” he said, adding that it is likely for the mutated virus to arrive in Malaysia at one point or another.
“It is hard to say when exactly, but given the nature of global travel, we have to prepare for the eventuality,” he said.
The variant of the virus so far had been reported to surface in the UK in late November following the discovery of a rapidly spreading cluster in southeast England and London, which is believed to be linked to the strain.
According to Public Health England, further tracing via genetic evidence suggested that the variant emerged first in September last year, and later circulated at “very low levels” within the community until the middle of November.
The strain is notable for its rapid infection rate in parts of England, and the number of regions reporting infections from it is growing as well.
The Covid-19 Genomics Consortium UK (COG-UK) said the variant has an unusually large number of genetic changes, highlighting three biologically significant mutations, located in its spike protein, which is associated with the viral entry into cells.
The first mutation called N501Y is found to increase the binding affinity between the virus and human receptor, though in studies with mice, the mutation is associated with increase not only in infectivity but also in virulence.
The second mutation is associated with the virus’ ability to evade the human immune response, while the third mutation dubbed P681H is located immediately adjacent to the furin cleavage site on the spike protein, which is considered as a “location of biological significance”.
COG-UK scientists hypothesised that the new variant may have existed from a virus transmission by a chronically infected individual, based on observations that a high rate of mutations may accumulate in immunocompromised patients with chronic infections of the virus.
As such, it is relevant in the context of immunity and the efficacy of the vaccine.
Dr See said currently, there is not enough study or information to show that the vaccine is not useful against the new mutated strands, however, this is something that the medical professionals would have to watch closely as well.
“Over time, I suspect that the Covid-19 vaccine would need to be modified in response to the mutation in the virus,” he said.
Meanwhile, as the vaccines are currently in the works, Dr Helmy suggested that the public should be reinforced with the basics of practising the 3Ws and avoid the 3Cs.
“The 3Ws that the public should be reinforced on practising are wash, wear and warn, while the 3Cs are crowded places, close-contact settings and confined and enclosed spaces,” he said.
Meanwhile, to respond to the new strain, the England populations have come under the strictest measures — such as staying at home and closing non-essential shops, while other parts of the UK have tightened measures.
Several destinations have also closed their doors to the UK, with France blocking people and goods from crossing the channel, while Germany, Ireland, Italy, Austria, Romania, the Netherlands and Belgium said they will bar air travel.
Closer to home, Hong Kong, India, Canada, Iran, Pakistan, Poland, Spain, Switzerland, Sweden, Russia and Jordan suspended travel for any Britons, while countries in the Middle East, such as Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Oman, have closed their borders entirely.
Read our earlier report