‘Escape Mutations’ May Drive New COVID Resurgence

Staying home as much as possible and away from others during spring could save some 30,000 lives, IHME model says

The E484K mutation is already causing misery in Manaus, Brazil, a city of 2 million people located in the Amazon rainforest.

Brazil, like the United States, failed in its efforts to mitigate the COVID-19 crisis last year. Like former President Donald Trump, Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro has played down the risk of the virus, and many people have refused to follow public health recommendations such as wearing masks or social distancing.

As a result, Manaus was hit so hard during the outbreak of cases last spring that scientists who studied blood samples there estimated that more than 75% of the population could have been infected. As cases plummeted over the summer, many wondered if so many people in Manaus had developed antibodies against the virus to the point that they had obtained community protection, or herd immunity, against SARS-CoV. 2, the virus that causes COVID-19.

It turns out the city has not freed itself from COVID.

Cases started to climb again in December, and once again hospitals were overwhelmed. Some emergency rooms lacked oxygen and patients suffocated for lack of care.

The second wave baffled researchers and sent them off to search for answers. When they looked at the genetic instructions for the coronavirus that was behind the new wave of infections, they could see that those plans had changed dramatically from the original ‘wild-type’ virus.

Viruses are changing all the time. When they copy each other and jump from host to host, they make mistakes in this copying process, called mutations. Sometimes these mutations give the virus important advantages that help it dominate other forms of the virus.

This new flavor, or variant, of the coronavirus found in Manaus – called P.1 – had 17 key changes, compared to the original.

One of these, the N501Y mutation, is also present in the variant first identified in the UK, which has made the virus more contagious and caused a further increase in cases. It appears to help the virus bind more easily to the gates of our cells called ACE2 receptors.

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Jothi Venkat

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