Get to know the new Covid-19 variants

Most of the individuals infected do not show symptoms like cough, fever and loss of taste and smell

by AZALEA AZUAR / Pic by BERNAMA

ALL viruses mutate to ensure their survivability, making us not only harder to kill, but also almost impossible to detect.

As soon as a medication or vaccine is formulated, they mutate, making the said vaccine almost, if not entirely, ineffective.

Altered copies of viruses are called “variants” which have different characteristics, such as being more deadly, more contagious or less effective against vaccines.

Researchers and medical experts worldwide are working tirelessly to prevent a wider spread of Covid-19 infection to stop the novel coronavirus from further mutating its characteristics.

Dr Noor Hisham is concerned over new VOCs, while patients are already in a critical condition

Recently, Health DG Tan Sri Dr Noor Hisham Abdullah expressed his growing concern over new variants of concerns (VOCs) that are deceptive against Covid-19 screening tests, while patients are already in a critical condition.

Most of the individuals infected with these variants did not show the symptoms that we were told to be aware of initially, such as cough, fever and loss of taste and smell. Now, symptoms can be anything from joint pains to lethargy and loss of appetite.

These VOCs also spread rapidly to the lungs and are linked to higher death rates.

The VOCs that have been detected in Malaysia so far are the UK variant (B.1.1.7), South Africa variant (B.1.351) and most recently the India variant (B.1.617).

UK Variant

The B.1.1.7 variant was estimated to emerge from the UK in September last year, but was only detected by British scientists in January 2021.

It has also emerged with a large number of mutations.

It is associated with faster transmission, as well as an increased risk of death compared to other variants.

Earlier reports found no evidence whether the B.1.1.7 variant has any impact on vaccine efficacy or severity of Covid-19.

It has been detected in many countries including Malaysia where it was first detected on Jan 9 this year by the Health Ministry.

It was brought in by an individual who travelled to the UK in December last year and was infected with the strain.

At press time, there are a total of five cases linked to the B.1.1.7 variant in the country.

South African Variant

The B.1.351 variant was first identified in Nelson Mandela Bay, South Africa, with samples dating back to the beginning of October 2020.

It shares some of the characteristics of the UK variant where it has multiple mutations in the spike protein, including K417N, E484K and N501Y, but does not contain the 96/70 deletion.

South African scientists warned that this variant may be 50% more contagious compared to the original strain based on its biological studies.

The virus has changes to its structure where it is easier for it to attach and infect human cells.

However, the B.1.351 variant is not as severe.

The first detection of this variant in Malaysia was in April with four cases linked to the Jalan Lima cluster and the Kebun Baru cluster.

Dr Noor Hisham explained that the two cases from the Jalan Lima cluster involved a Kuala Lumpur International Airport (KLIA) employee, while the Kebun Baru cluster involved a housemate of a Covid-19 patient.

Later on May 2, 27 more cases of this variant were detected in Perak, Kelantan and Selangor.

Indian Variant

The B.1.617 variant was identified in October last year and was responsible for the 60% spike in Covid-19 cases in Maharashtra, India.

That was when the country entered the second wave by mid-February.

This variant has formed sub-lineages B.1.617.2, B.1.617.3 and B.1.617.1. The World Health Organisation (WHO) quickly identified the B.1.617.2 sub-lineage as a VOC as it was one of the reasons which caused the massive surge in cases worldwide.

The B.1.617.2 sub-lineage contains the cross-mutations of E484Q and L452R in its spike protein and it has caused severe infections among younger adults in India, where many of them have been placed in intensive care units.

It also seems to aggressively infect more children, forcing Singapore to close schools.

Even experts have warned that patients who recovered from Covid-19 or have been vaccinated may not be resistant against the Indian variant compared to the others.

The B.1.617.1 sub-lineage was first detected in Malaysia on May 2 from an Indian national screened at the KLIA.

B.1.470 and B.1.160

Two new variants for the SARS-CoV-2 virus, which are B.1.470 and B.1.160 have been identified in Sarawak earlier.

The B.1.470 variant’s origin still remains unknown, but it is likely to have hailed from Indonesia since it has a 67.7% similar strain.

On the other hand, the B.1.160 variant has been popular in European countries since July last year.

It previously dominated in France (11%), but now it can mostly be found in Denmark (28%), Switzerland (15.4%) and the UK (17.2%).

These two strains do not have evidence of high levels of infectivity.

Nigerian Variant

The B.1.525 variant was first discovered in the UK and Nigeria in December 2020. However, it is mostly dominated in Denmark.

It made its way to Malaysia after two foreign nationals who had flown from the United Arab Emirates (UAE) have been infected with this variant.

Dr Noor Hisham said the B.1.525 variant might increase the transmission of the infection and reduce the immune response.

Brazil Variant

The P.1 variant was detected after a cluster of cases sparked from Manaus, Brazil, in December 2020.

As of October, approximately 75% of the population in the Amazon region have been infected with the variant and the number of cases have surged since mid-December.

Experts have raised concerns that this variant might increase transmissibility or re-infect Covid19 patients.

Currently, the Brazil variant contains three mutations in the spike protein receptor binding domain which are K417T, E484K, and N501Y.

New York Variant

The B.1.526 variant was found in New York City, the US, in November 2020.

Two teams of researchers have found that this variant has mutations in the virus’ spike protein which enables it to penetrate into the host’s cells and cause more effective infections.

Hence, it may weaken the effectiveness of vaccines.

The New York variant has popular mutations known as E484K and S477N. Studies revealed that the former is more resistant towards vaccines than the strain of the virus on which they were developed.

Californian Variants

The two variants B.1.427 and B.1.429 were detected in California, US, earlier this year and are often found in pairs.

They were listed as VOCs by WHO as they are thought to be more contagious than the original Covid-19 virus based on US data, with a 20% increase transmission rate and may mildly decrease the effectiveness in vaccines.

Recent studies showed that the specific monoclonal antibody treatments may not be so effective when it comes to treating B.1.427 and B.1.429 variants.

Now, these variants are found in 27 countries around the world.

Fortunately, the California, New York and Brazil variants are not yet found in Malaysia.