British, South African, Brazilian, Nigerian, Ugandan, Californian … The coronavirus does not stop mutating and new variants proliferate in all corners of the globe. Known colloquially by the name of the country where they arise, now a Tokyo hospital has detected a new version of SARS-CoV-2 that adds to all the previous ones and worries about the possible effects on the population: the Japanese .
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This variant has the E484K mutation , also known as ERIK and shared by the South African and Brazilian version of the coronavirus.
It is a modification in SARS-CoV-2 that significantly reduces the effectiveness of vaccines, because it reduces the neutralizing capacity of some of the antibodies produced by stimulating the immune response that block the entry of the virus into cells. However, there are also concerns about its possible consequences on the transmissibility of the disease .
This discovery comes during a new spike in infections that has particularly affected the city of Osaka and the prefectures of Hyogo and Miyagi and just a few months before the start of the Olympic Games in Tokyo, postponed last year due to the pandemic.
How was the variant detected?
This new variant was detected by the Tokyo Medical and Dental University Hospital, which found that around 70% of the patients tested in March for COVID-19 had been infected with it. The center carried out the sequencing of the 14 positive people and verified that 10 had been infected with this mutated virus.
“This mutation is capable of reducing the efficacy of the vaccine, but it does not eliminate it”
Additionally, in January and February, 12 of the 36 COVID-19 infected patients were carriers of the mutation, and none of them had recently traveled abroad or been in contact with people who had, according to the hospital report.
At present, there are two main branches with this E484K mutation: the South African and the Brazilian, as well as some isolated events, explains Víctor Jiménez Cid, professor at the Complutense University of Madrid 20 minutes later. “Most likely it is one of these variants, which has been dispersing in Japan, and has evolved there a little more “, adds the member of the Spanish Society of Microbiology.
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For his part, the virologist and professor of Microbiology at CEU San Pablo Estanislao Nistal University points out the hypothesis that the coronavirus can mutate in patients who have been admitted to the hospital for a long time with active infection.
What is the main threat of this variant?
The E484K mutation that characterizes this Japanese variant affects the ability to neutralize the entry of the virus into cells, as explained by Nistal at 20 minutes . This feature can reduce the effectiveness of vaccines and the immunity generated by previous infections.
“This mutation greatly affects the neutralizing capacity of some of the antibodies produced by stimulating the immune response that block the entry of the virus into our cells. When we have been infected before with other different variants, some antibodies do not work. However, that does not it means that we stop having immunity . It is capable of reducing the effectiveness, but it does not eliminate it, “he deepens.
“These new variants have not been shown to be more virulent”
In this sense, he adds that, in addition to neutralizing antibodies, there are also other forms of immunity to protect against the coronavirus, such as T cells.
“The immunity that has been generated is effective, but not as effective. It does not cancel antigenicity, but it does decrease it,” agrees Jiménez Cid, who raises the possibility of reformulating vaccines in the future to include these variants, so that some may be even versatile.
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Both experts agree that, just as the N501Y mutation – present in the British version of the virus – does induce an increase in the contagion capacity, it is not clear that the same happens with E484K . “Does it cause greater transmissibility? It could affect, but it is not fully demonstrated. However, it can be inferred from the success in prevalence, because they have displaced other variants”, considers Jiménez Cid.
Regarding mortality, Jiménez Cid points out that these new variants have not been shown to be more virulent . However, it emphasizes that, if the transmissibility is higher, the number of patients increases and the saturation of hospitals, which can lead to worse care and an increase in deaths.
Can it affect the Olympics?
The two scientists also agree that the predominant variant of coronavirus in the country will not have a great impact on the Olympic Games, since the key to controlling the spread lies in adopting the necessary measures and controlling it. “It will not have a major impact,” says Nistal.