New Covid-19 Variant: What is a Mutation?

No doubt everyone has seen the news about the new corona virus variants currently circulating in the UK. It came with the announcement that these variants are more transmissible than the previous and has caused travel bans to and from the UK and South-Africa together with stricter lockdowns. There is no evidence on their virulence yet, but even if they are not more dangerous it will put a strain on the NHS and the economy.

What is a mutation and why does it happen?

Every organism (including us) has an unique genetic code, DNA or in the case of coronavirus it is RNA, which you could see as the recipe for life. A mutation is a change in this genetic code of the organism, either due to mistakes when the DNA/RNA is replicated or as the result of environmental factors. Mutations happen frequently. In fact, it is estimated that approximately 2 to 6 mutations occur each month in a virus [1]. The majority of mutations are neutral and not causing any effects on the organism. However, some mutations can be beneficial for the organism and will result in a more powerful organism. In biology this is called survival of the fittest where organisms with genes better suited to the environment are selected for survival and pass them to the next generation.

In the case of coronavirus, the mutated strain that was recently found in the UK contains not just one but 17 mutations and therefore it has been named as a new variant (VUI-202012/01 – the first “Variant Under Investigation” in December 2020) [2]. One of its advantages are the mutations in the spike protein which helps virus particles to invade cells and these new mutations cause the virus to bind better to human cells. The interesting thing about viruses is that it needs the host to survive and therefore mutations that cause more people to be infected more efficiently are beneficial for its survival. Thus, this variant with its improved recipe for life is more powerful than the original strain and will therefore continue to exist. It might even get more beneficial mutations over time.

Can mutations be created by us?

Yes, indirectly. As stated previously, mutations can occur spontaneously when the genetic sequence is replicated or can be caused by environmental factors. As long as a virus is alive in a host, RNA replication follows which gives more possibilities of mutations to happen and therefore more chance for a beneficial mutation to occur. For example, when the virus lingers for months in a patient with a weakened immune system that can’t kill the virus, it has a lot of time to accumulate beneficial mutations. In addition, environmental factors such as UV light or chemicals challenge the organism to either be killed or to evolve in order to survive. This is why it’s so important that everything we use in the fight against viruses must have a very high efficacy rate of at least 99.99% within the shortest time frame possible to mitigate the chance of mutations occurring. The emerge of Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA or also known under the nickname ‘superbug’) is a great example when an organism has evolved mechanisms to overcome the action of environmental factors in order to survive. Researchers found genes in the earliest MRSA isolates recovered in Europe that confer resistance to numerous other antibiotics, as well as genes associated with decreased susceptibility to disinfectants [3].

Does Protect Professional still kill these new variants?

Yes. Unlike many other disinfectants and antimicrobial coatings, Protect Professional uses a physical method of killing pathogens, rather than a chemical leaching one [4,5]. This is done through positively charged micro-spikes which punctures the cell membrane (envelope) of the virus with lethal results. This physical method of destroying the pathogen is not dependent on specific characteristics and for that reason successfully disrupts the cell membrane of any enveloped virus (including coronavirus variants) as well as a range of other pathogens such as bacteria, fungi and algae. Another benefit of this is that it doesn’t challenge the organism with chemical leaching and therefore it cannot promote antimicrobial resistance within the virus. Thus, where it is possible for pathogens to build up a resistance to some biocides, Protect Professional does not have a growing list of pathogens that it will not kill.

References:

  1. Scheuch, G. Breathing Is Enough: For the Spread of Influenza Virus and SARS-CoV-2 by Breathing Only. Journal of aerosol medicine and pulmonary drug delivery 2020, 33, 230-234, doi:10.1089/jamp.2020.1616.
  2. Wise, J. Covid-19: New coronavirus variant is identified in UK. BMJ (Clinical research ed.) 2020, 371, m4857, doi:10.1136/bmj.m4857.
  3. Harkins, C.P.; Pichon, B.; Doumith, M.; Parkhill, J.; Westh, H.; Tomasz, A.; de Lencastre, H.; Bentley, S.D.; Kearns, A.M.; Holden, M.T.G. Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus emerged long before the introduction of methicillin into clinical practice. Genome biology 2017, 18, 130, doi:10.1186/s13059-017-1252-9.
  4. Isquith, A.J.; McCollum, C.J. Surface kinetic test method for determining rate of kill by an antimicrobial solid. Applied and environmental microbiology 1978, 36, 700-704, doi:10.1128/aem.36.5.700-704.1978.
  5. Tsao, I.F.; Wang, H.Y.; Shipman, C., Jr. Interaction of infectious viral particles with a quaternary ammonium chlorid (QAC) surface. Biotechnology and bioengineering 1989, 34, 639-646, doi:10.1002/bit.260340508.

 

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Dr Mireille van der Torre

Dr Mireille van der Torre

Mireille is Head of Science at InfectProtect. She has a PhD in molecular biology with a focus on infectious disease. Currently she is also working with the NHS within the field of public health at the National Antimicrobial Resistance and Healthcare Associated Infection (NARHAI) Scotland.

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