Mutations are nothing unusual in viruses. On average, there are two new variants every month. However, in the case of the British virus variant, which has now been fully decoded, 17 gene changes have already been identified, which even astonishes virologists - according to an article in the journal JAMA. Three mutations are being watched particularly closely: N501Y, which possibly improves the binding of the virus to human cells, as well as the deletion of positions 69 and 70, and the mutation P681H.
Mutations cause more rapid spread
The reason for the rapid spread could be a slight change in a spike protein site on the virus surface. These copying errors allow the mutated virus to replicate, transmit or escape the immune system more easily than the original coronavirus. Therefore there is a high likelihood that this more effective virus will become established as the predominant variant locally or regionally.
However, the rapid spread does not mean, for example, that the British variant is also responsible for more severe COVID-19 courses or a higher mortality rate. So far, there is no evidence of this. For the infected person, it is therefore irrelevant which variant they have contracted. The mutation has no influence on the course of the disease.
However, the rapid spread of the disease can lead to the collapse of overburdened healthcare systems in some countries. In many places, there are shortages of hospital beds, ventilators, intensive care units and staff.
Variant B.1.351., which has been rampant in South Africa since last August, is similar to the British variant and is also blamed for the most rapid increase in the number of cases in South Africa. It carries other spike protein mutations in addition to N501Y, including a mutation called E484K that has a negative effect on antibody binding and corona neutralization.
Recovered and vaccinated people could be infected again
Also of concern is variant P.1, identified only recently in Brazil, which has 17 mutations, some also in the spike protein. The variant carries the N501Y mutation discovered in the British and South African variants and the E484K mutation so far detected only in the South African variant.
This Brazilian variant first appeared in Manaus, the capital of the state of Amazonas, where three quarters of the population were infected with the novel coronavirus last year. That should have led to some basic immunization in a large part of the population, but infection numbers there have recently been rapidly rising again.
This could mean that the body's immune response in people who have recovered from COVID-19 or those who have been vaccinated is not sufficient, because the new variant P.1 escapes the immune response. In this situation, some antibodies can no longer bind and neutralize the virus - it partially escapes the immune response. In other words, even recovered and vaccinated individuals could become infected.
It is unclear whether a mutant variant of the virus is responsible for the death of a 73-year-old man from southern Germany. He died in late December after a second COVID-19 infection led to pneumonia and multiple organ failure. It is only the third known death worldwide from reinfection. It is possible that he did not develop strong immunity from his initial infection. It is now being investigated if he was infected the second time with one of the new virus variants.
Many local mutations
The more intensively the respective corona cases are sequenced, the more mutations are likely to be discovered in the near future. However, these do not always have to be serious.
The virus variant recently detected in a corona outbreak at a Garmisch-Partenkirchen hospital in Germany's state of Bavaria is said to be only a partial mutation, meaning it is not the British or South African variant. To clarify the matter, the relevant samples are currently being analyzed at the Charité hospital in Berlin.
And the virus variant that has surfaced in the greater Los Angeles area is apparently a strain called L452R, which was first identified in Denmark in March last year. But even there, there is concern that the vaccines could lose their effectiveness.
Do the mutations endanger the effectiveness of the vaccines?
So far, whether the developed mRNA vaccines also work with these additional mutations, and if so, how well, has not been conclusively investigated. If part of the distinctive spines, which are important for recognizing the virus, changes, the antibodies produced by the body may be less able to recognize and neutralize the coronavirus. Vaccine protection would then lose effectiveness.
As things stand, the vaccines from BioNTech/Pfizer and Moderna are also effective against the British virus variant B.1.1.7. because these mRNA vaccines dock precisely at the affected spike protein.
The extent to which the vaccines already available can also cope with the other mutations that have become known and with further variants must be shown by further investigations.
If at some point the virus mutates to such an extent that the immune response triggered by the vaccination can no longer neutralize it, then the vaccines would have to be adapted.
Such an update is not very difficult with the mRNA vaccines, according to BioNTech-Pfizer. The genetic code of the virus contained in the vaccine can be changed relatively easily within a few weeks.
But testing and approval, as well as production and distribution of the adapted vaccine, are known to take time - and already many vaccination centers are eagerly awaiting the currently valid vaccines.