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Understanding the new COVID-19 strain

Paranoia is sweeping the land again as a new strain of the coronavirus has emerged.

Last month, a single passenger from the United Kingdom tested positive for the mutated strain. Since then, the Philippine government has declared a travel ban on all flights coming in from the UK until mid-January. In addition, a travel ban and a mandatory 14-day quarantine has been imposed for all those arriving from countries that reported to have the new strain, including Singapore, Australia, Japan, and 17 other countries. The quarantine shall be imposed regardless of the results of a polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test.

In Mindanao, inter-island travel to and from Sabah and Sulu has been prohibited and a naval blockade installed as the mutated virus was recently detected in Sabah.

The new virus strain is said to be 70% more transmissible than the original Wuhan strain. It is also said to result in more serious symptoms, especially among the immunocompromised. The infectiousness of the virus, coupled with its lethality, has made this new strain a more fatal one. It has made this pandemic harder to manage.

But before panic overcomes reason, we must understand the dynamics of this new strain.

The genetic code of the coronavirus is written in its RNA. RNA naturally mutates when it replicates. Some mutations make the virus weaker leading it to die, while others become stronger. In fact, the strain that arrived in Europe earlier this year was already a mutated version of the original Wuhan strain. The coronavirus is similar to the influenza virus in that it is constantly changing. Hence, the need to have new flu shots every year.

Two characteristics make the new strain from the UK more lethal. First, its spike protein allows it to be more effective in binding, entering, and reproducing in human cells. This is why it is more infectious than the original Wuhan strain. (Although it’s been said that this new strain is 70% more transmittable, this is only an inferred estimate, not a proven fact.) Second, its spike protein allows it to be more resistant to antibodies. In other words, it is more robust, more persistent and results in more serious symptoms. Note, a similar strain of the virus was also detected in South Africa where it mutated independently from that of the UK. This tells us that the virus can mutate anywhere on its own, without transmission from a foreigner.

So the next question is — if a virus can mutate the functionality of its spike protein over time, can it mutate to a point where it becomes strong enough to resist the vaccine (also called immunological escape or vaccine escape)? Yes it can. But this does not happen overnight. It takes a series of mutations for a virus to develop enough changes in its spike protein to achieve vaccine escape.

The new mRNA vaccines, particularly those from Pfizer and Moderna, produce a purified spike protein that causes immune responses like fever, muscle aches, and headaches. All these are indicative of our immune system revving-up in response to the vaccine. These antibodies have a neutralizing effect that can knock-out the virus through mass attack. The virus must mutate quite a bit to evade it. Studies suggest that it will take five years for the virus to achieve this mutation. Hence, from what we know today, there is no immediate danger of vaccine escape. The vaccines are strong enough to overcome even the more robust mutated strain of the COVID-19 virus, for now.

So, how do you prevent the virus from mutating into one that can resist the vaccine? By preventing the virus from replicating. In this regard, governments around the world must vaccinate as many people as they can, as quickly as they can. It is also important to remain fastidious about safety protocols like social distancing, hand washing, and mask wearing to suppress viral replication.

The fact that the vaccines are strong enough to resist even the new strain of the virus should not lead us to complacency. We still need to be vigilant since there is no telling how the virus will mutate in the future.

We hope that this time around, the IATF-EID has learned its lesson and will not make the same mistakes as it did before. First of all, it should raise travel bans as quickly as possible and not pussyfoot around China (curiously, mainland China is not included in the list of countries affected by our travel ban, as of this writing). It must establish nationwide testing and genotyping facilities to monitor the spread of the virus and how it is mutating.

Above all, it must not impose a militaristic lockdown, like the ECQ, which the world now recognizes and calls “the dumb bomb.” It is referred to as such for how it uselessly causes severe economic consequences without curtailing the virus’ spread. Rather, it must utilize the “smart bomb,” like South Korea and Vietnam did, which involves aggressive testing, tracking, treatment of the infected and the isolation carriers.

It is also important that the government not be a fear monger since fear is what killed our consumer driven economy in the first place.

As for the rest of the citizenry, let us be informed and vigilant, not afraid.


Andrew J. Masigan is an economist

Twitter @aj_masigan

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