UI expects UK COVID-19 variant to enter campus community

Pharmacist+Katie+Lampman+fills+doses+of+the+Moderna+COVID-19+vaccine+at+the+I-Hotel+on+Jan.+12.

Ryan Ash

Pharmacist Katie Lampman fills doses of the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine at the I-Hotel on Jan. 12.

By Royal Shrestha, Staff Writer

Over the last few months, vaccines have completed phase three of trials, and over 30.6 million doses have been distributed across the U.S.. However, just a few weeks ago, it was reported that new variants of the coronavirus have been detected in the U.K. and Africa, one of which the University expects to enter the community.  

It has been almost a year since COVID-19 was declared as a pandemic by the International World Health Organization. During this time, new mutations that were introduced to the virus caused it to be more infectious, including the infamous D614G variant, which now is in the genome of almost all the virus samples gathered from individuals. 

Erik Procko, assistant professor of biochemistry in MCB, explained how the coronavirus genome containing a single, long strand of RNA is one of the fastest mutating virus types. Like all viruses, including influenza, the coronavirus mutates to potentially gain new characteristics that will be beneficial for its survival and growth. 

The new variant in the U.K. is known as the B.1.1.7 lineage and there are over a dozen random point mutations to the genome. Only two of these point mutation effects have been identified, with one of them having a 20 times greater binding affinity to our cells. 

“The reason why these new variants are of concern is due to the increase in binding affinity, meaning that it is easier for the virus to spread,” Procko said. 

On Wednesday, Chancellor Robert Jones announced that the UI “expect(s) to see the highly contagious B117 variant enter our community.

“This variant of the virus appears to spread 50 percent faster than any other strains,” Jones wrote.

With reports from Africa and now also in the United States about new variants of the virus, it has been a concern to some whether the distributed vaccines in places like Carle Hospital are still effective. With vaccines being distributed after under a year of development and testing, many are worried if annual vaccination is necessary. 

“Each of the vaccines out there right now handles the virus differently and I doubt these mutations will make the virus completely resistant,” Procko said. 

As for annual testing, Procko explained how things are still a bit unclear as to whether or not that is necessary. The duration of COVID-19 antibodies have been reported differently across many scientific research studies, and it will take more trials and studies to be done before knowing whether it is needed to vaccinate just once or annually, similar to a flu shot. 

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