Not ending COVID-19 war gives enemy time to ‘develop new weapons’: USask prof

According to a University of Saskatchewan (USask) biomedical assistant professor, eliminating COVID-19 took on new meaning with the emergence of a variant.

Dr. Kyle Anderson said on Monday the variant of the novel coronavirus in the United Kingdom appears to have different properties than our standard run-of-the-mill COVID.

Read more: ‘Good news’: Coronavirus vaccine will still protect against new U.K. variant, WHO says

“What it appears to be is that this variant has several mutations that have accumulated over time and have been selected for. And one of the major ones is that it appears to be more able to bind the Ace2 receptors in our lungs, which means it has a higher infectivity or a higher affinity so that if you do breathe it in, then it’s more likely to infect you,” he said.

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“The sort of number that they’ve … batted around (is) that it appears to be about 70 per cent better than the original version at doing that.”

Anderson explained that as a virus evolves, it often becomes more domesticated, meaning symptoms can be less severe so whoever is infected can spread the virus to more people.

“There’s a couple of other changes, so one is that there’s this mutation that looks like it might help it to evade the immune system a little bit better … which might not actually make it a harsher disease because part of the severity of COVID is our own immune response against it,” Anderson said.

“A lot of viruses, over time, tend to almost become what we call domesticated. They become less severe but more transmissible because a virus isn’t very effective if it kills you immediately. The best sort of successful virus is one that keeps its host alive so that it can spread to more and more people for a longer period of time.

“So it does sort of work for us that the virus, its own selection systems, should be for it to become a milder and milder illness but that’s maybe a longer-term thing. It can, in the short-term, create a variant that is more severe in the disease.”

Read more: Canada obtains final data needed to make Moderna vaccine decision

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For experts like Anderson, it wasn’t a surprise to see a new variant of COVID-19.

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“The more people that are infected, the more copies of the virus will be out there in the wild and just having more variations means a better chance of selecting for something that’s different,” Anderson said.

“Any infection that is allowed to sort of persist in the population for a longer period of time, there’s more chance that it will evolve and have that selection to try and evade new measures to become more infectious or spread more easily.

While this new variant isn’t a reason for people to panic, Anderson said it’s a good reminder to keep being cautious and continue making choices to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus.

“Right now, we don’t really need to panic or worry that this one is significantly worse but we can take this as sort of an educational moment to say that the longer this pandemic carries on, the more likely it would be that something that is more dangerous will come out. So the faster that we can actually get rid of all COVID, the better we’re all going to be,” Anderson said.

“You don’t want the war to last too long because then you give the time for the enemy to develop new weapons.

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“The virus can’t outsmart us but it has the power of numbers. When we have a million people infected and those people make a million viruses each. We’ve got trillions of potential copies that might be the one that is really good at infecting us. So the faster we can stop this pandemic by outsmarting it, using social distancing and masks and just being intelligent about our strategies, the better we’re all going to be coming out of this.”

Anderson adds vaccines, including the Pfizer vaccine, can adapt to new variants to still provide immunity. If it didn’t, trials and production of a new vaccine would be a lot faster than the first time around.

“This is a new variant that would appear to still be targeted by the same vaccine and that people who have already had COVID should still be immune. So we wouldn’t really consider that a new strain where someone is going to get infected again with something different but definitely being a new variant,” Anderson said.

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“This new system of vaccination that we’re going to have is going to be much, much faster to adapt to any new strains that actually do come up. And there’s no reason to believe that we would need to have the same duration of trials with these new variants because if we’re just changing a few nucleotides to change the targeting, that’s not going to give us much difference in the safety overall of that vaccine.”

A travel ban from Canada and to the U.K. was put in place Monday after a new variant of COVID-19 was found spreading in Europe.

Questions about COVID-19? Here are some things you need to know:

Symptoms can include fever, cough and difficulty breathing — very similar to a cold or flu. Some people can develop a more severe illness. People most at risk of this include older adults and people with severe chronic medical conditions like heart, lung or kidney disease. If you develop symptoms, contact public health authorities.

To prevent the virus from spreading, experts recommend frequent handwashing and coughing into your sleeve. They also recommend minimizing contact with others, staying home as much as possible and maintaining a distance of two metres from other people if you go out. In situations where you can’t keep a safe distance from others, public health officials recommend the use of a non-medical face mask or covering to prevent spreading the respiratory droplets that can carry the virus. In some provinces and municipalities across the country, masks or face coverings are now mandatory in indoor public spaces.

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