Variant strains mean this pandemic is far from over

Variant strains mean this pandemic is far from over

Variant strains mean this pandemic is far from over
A COVID-19 vaccination dose is administered to a man on August 14, 2021 in New Orleans, Louisiana. (AFP)
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As with any pathogen like the coronavirus, variants are an expected development. With the coronavirus, the delta variant broke off into a few subtypes, which are being classified as delta+. It arrived in May, and has become the most common variant.

There’s no evidence to suggest that delta+ is any more of a problem than the original delta variant, but more information is required to determine if and how the subtypes may behave differently. 

Delta+ is present in 33 countries and spreading rapidly among the unvaccinated.  It was one of 18 delta variant mutations, and one of seven mutations that has a change in its spike protein making it behave differently through infection. The delta variant is robust enough to push out other variants. 

To be sure, delta+ arose from delta, from individuals who contracted an infection from the delta variant. It shares almost all the same genetic code as the delta variant, but there are some differences.  With vaccination, the human immune system produces T-cells across 85 segments of the spike protein, creating strong T-cell immunity.  That is good news.

So far, delta+ does not appear to behave differently from the original delta but it will keep sprouting subtypes as it infects more people, especially the unvaccinated. The global rush for vaccination is meeting rejection, protests and occasional violence by the antivax movement. Meanwhile delta+ has had a dramatic social impact. How Darwinian.

 If another variant appears with equally high capability of transmission, but which is also much more severe in terms of the spike protein, then there could be additional requirements for booster shots and other measures, including lockdowns.

Dr. Theodore Karasik

Whenever a new variant appears, the big question is whether the sequences can bypass the many vaccines available.  The application of one brand of vaccine in one continent and a different one in another may have dramatically different results over time. Importantly, with delta+, the vaccines perform as they were designed to, reducing serious illness, hospital admissions, and death. 

Thus, the real concern is whether the variant can evade the immunity conferred by vaccination.  The vaccines do a lot more than just trigger the production of neutralizing antibodies. They also deliver immunity through T cells and memory B cells, which are known to be long lasting and effective at preventing severe illness, even within the delta variant family. 

There are more variants requiring additional focus, and there are two categories of classification —variants of concern, and variants of interest. The alpha variant, originally identified in the UK, was a variant of concern.  The lambda variant, originating from South America and now in the northern hemisphere, is a variant of interest, meaning its genetic changes could affect transmissibility and disease severity.

Lambda is a variant based on the initial global disease spread last year. It was first detected in Peru in December 2020 and consisted of up to 81 percent of pathogen sequence cases in the country.  The lambda variant shares mutations in common with the alpha, beta, and gamma aspects of the original coronavirus.  Lambda is in 36 countries and counting.

Overall, with delta+ and lambda, which behave differently, we’re heading down a slippery slope. More transmission could lead to more mutations and, unfortunately, new variants. If another variant appears with equally high capability of transmission, but which is also much more severe in terms of the spike protein, then there could be additional requirements for booster shots and other measures, including lockdowns. Lockdowns are increasingly becoming politicized, and with the variants running around as they are now, there is every reason in the world to see that this pandemic will not be over for quite a while. 

  •  Dr. Theodore Karasik is a senior adviser to Gulf State Analytics in Washington, D.C. Twitter: @tkarasik
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