Explainer: What are mutations of coronavirus, and how are they spreading?

Edited By: Gravitas desk WION
New Delhi, Delhi, India Published: Apr 15, 2021, 11:37 PM(IST)

File photo of a new variant of coronavirus Photograph:( Reuters )

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With more than 12,700 identified mutations now, the deadly coronavirus is becoming powerful and more contagious

COVID-19 is no longer the same virus that we first saw in 2020. It has changed and has become more powerful — it has mutated. It began with one but it has more than 12,700 identified mutations now.

When a virus replicates, it sometimes changes shape in the process. Such behaviour is quite normal for a virus as a virus by definition is always looking for ways to spread and thrive.

When a virus mutates more than once, the mutation is called a variant of the original virus. Most of these variants are harmless but in the case of the coronavirus, some variants are now driving a worldwide surge in cases.

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One of them is the UK ‘Kent’ variant that scientists call the B.1.1.7.  It was first identified in September last year. This variant can travel fast and infect far more people than before.

While the UK has tamed the spread of this variant, it is causing havoc in the other parts of the world. In Asia, around 40 per cent of the cases are said to be of this variant. Reports say this variant could be partially refuelling the surge in India.

Then comes the Brazilian variant which seems far more dangerous. Linked to the Brazilian Amazon, this variant led to the healthcare tragedy in Brazil. Experts say it is far more transmissible and perhaps, deadlier too.

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The third is the South African variant which is much more contagious than the original. First found in South Africa, it has now spread to at least 20 countries, including India. and it spreads easily. However, there is no evidence yet if it makes a patient sicker. This variant had forced South Africa to dump the AstraZeneca vaccine. Now, a study claims that it might evade the protection provided by the Pfizer vaccine too.

In March, India detected a double mutant variant of the virus. In Maharastra, 61 per cent of the samples are of this variant. As the name suggests, the double mutant carries two mutations of the virus. They are far more infectious and can even evade antibodies. So, even those who got the virus before and recovered are now at risk.

The options to tackle the new mutations remain limited. The existing vaccines might not be as effective as before. Therefore, masks, hand sanitisers and social distancing remain our only defence for now.

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