What is B.1.617 COVID variant and will vaccines work for it?

The ancestor (proCoV2) virus and its initial descendants arose in China.

Now the same virus which originated in Wuhan has different variants in different countries.

The research shows that a population of strains with three mutational differences (alpha 1-3) from proCoV2 existed at the time of the first observation of novel coronavirus cases in China. The present main variants the UK (B., South African (B.1.351), South American (P.1) and now in India (B.1.617) are shown within the lineage. These variants have not only come to take over earlier dominant strains in their respective areas, and threaten the world health.

These viruses mutate all the time, generating different versions or variants of themselves. Most of these mutations are unimportant and some may even make the virus less risky. But there are other variations  which can make it more infectious and harder to get vaccinate against them.

The COVID-19 variant which is known as B.1.617 was first found in India in October.

The observations emphasise the need to increase vaccination rates, Mehul Suthar says an immunologist at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia, who led the research.  “So long as there is a naive population out there, the virus is going to infect, replicate and mutate.”

“These vaccines are working,” says Mehul Suthar. Still, the results shows the need to continue observing vaccine response to SARS-CoV-2 mutations, which often act on the spike protein that the virus uses to infect cells. “Because of the spectrum of mutations that have accumulated within the spike protein, the antibodies just don’t work as well,” says Suthar.

Like other distressing variants, B.1.617 has more than a dozen mutations. Mainly the two mutations have been most concerning, said Ravindra Gupta, a microbiologist at the University of Cambridge. 

What is the matter of concern when the two mutations come together? The problem, Gupta said, is that the consequence of the mutations would add up or even intensify each other.

Could the “double mutant” be a double problem for the vaccine?

Gupta and his team took antibodies from individuals vaccinated with the Pfizer jabs and then researched to know how much the two mutations, when combined together, reduces the ability of these antibodies to terminate the virus. What they saw was positive. The double mutant acted quite similar to the single mutant. It wasn’t that problem.

“There didn’t seem to be the addition of one mutant on top of the other,” Gupta said. “And that was really quite important because that assumption has caused panic.”

At the same time, there was related research at Emory University. They took antibodies from 15 people who have been jabbed with either the Pfizer or Moderna shots. In their studies, the antibodies could still nullify the B.1.617 variant.

“Despite this reduction, all vaccine blood samples … still maintained the ability to block the B.1.617 variant,” said immunologist Mehul Suthar at Emory, who led the study.

Together the data suggests the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines work very well against B.1.617. In both cases, the vaccines will likely to give great protection from death and acute illness.

In India, the most well-known vaccine is the one made by AstraZeneca and manufactured by the Serum Institute, called Covishield. Will this vaccine react against B.1.617?

Initial results shows that this vaccine will definitely be able to prevent critical COVID-19 cases and deaths, said Rakesh Mishra, adviser to the Centre for Cellular & Molecular Biology in Hyderabad, India.

“These findings highlight the need to increase vaccination rates,” Suthar said.

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