A new variant of the coronavirus that emerged in the heart of the Brazilian Amazon has reignited the international alert. Scientists are now striving to unravel the mysteries of this variant that has already been identified in eight countries and that it may be more infectious, although little is still known about it.
There are indications that the one baptized as P.1 is one of the factors behind the explosion of COVID-19 cases in Manaus, capital of the state of Amazonas, where health services have been completely overwhelmed.
With a higher number of mutations, It is also studied if the Brazilian is more dangerous than the variants found in the United Kingdom and South Africa, which are the three that most concern the World Health Organization (WHO).
In the midst of this worrying finding, the pandemic is hitting all of Brazil once again, which already accumulates 222,666 deaths and 9.1 million cases, according to official data.
WHERE AND WHEN DID THE BRAZILIAN VARIANT APPEAR?
The first alarm was raised by japanese authorities on January 9, after analyzing the samples of four passengers who arrived in Tokyo a week earlier after traveling through the Amazon for a while.
A preliminary investigation by the Oswaldo Cruz Foundation (Fiocruz), a leading medical research center in Latin America, indicated that this new variant is a “recent phenomenon”.
It was probably developed in December and evolved from variants that were in circulation in the Amazon.
In fact, In Manaus, about 30 variants of the coronavirus have already been detected, but the most disturbing is P.1, as José Eduardo Levi, a researcher at the Institute of Tropical Medicine of the University of Sao Paulo (USP) explains to Efe.
WHAT CHARACTERIZES IT? HOW MANY MUTATIONS DOES IT HAVE?
According to Fiocruz, the Manaus variant accumulated in a short space of time “a number of unusual genetic alterations“, Several of them in the protein” spike “(spike), which the new coronavirus uses to enter human cells.
12 mutations have been identified only in this “spike” protein of the Brazilian variant, three of them are of particular concern: K417N, E484K, N501Y.
IS IT MORE CONTAGIOUS?
These three sets of letters and numbers represent amino acids of the “spike”, whose mutation is associated with a greater power of transmissibility. They would help the virus to replicate more and better assemble with the cell’s entry receptor.
“It is as if you have a door, which is the cell, and the lock, which is the receiver. And now you have a virus that opens that lock more easily. If you can get in more easily increases the power to be more infectious”, Tells Efe Felipe Naveca, virologist at the Leônidas & María Deane Institute (Fiocruz Amazonía).
On the other hand, it is unknown whether this new variant produces more serious pictures of the disease.
WHAT IS THE POTENTIAL FOR REINFECTION?
So far there is a confirmed case of a person who contracted the coronavirus in March 2020 and was reinfected by the Amazon variant, despite having antibodies.
“We have no way of affirming that the virus escaped the antibodies or if they were so low that they could not neutralize it. This is under study, ”says Naveca.
DOES IT HAVE SIMILARITIES WITH THE BRITISH AND SOUTH AFRICAN?
The Brazilian did not emerge from the British or the South African.
All three evolved independently and they arose sporadically in all three countries, although some of the mutations identified in the spike protein have been found to be the same.
“We believe that they are more contagious because they have that mutation in common that increases transmissibility,” says Levi, a virologist also at the DASA laboratory.
Levi believes that the Brazilian could be the most “dangerous”, at least due to the number of mutations identified in the “spike” protein: 12 compared to the 8 found in the British or 10 in the South African.
IS THE AMAZON VARIANT BEHIND THE COLLAPSE IN MANAUS?
The numbers say yes, but it would not be the only cause of chaos in the Brazilian Amazon capital.
The samples analyzed in December by Fiocruz detected P.1 in 51% of the cases. That percentage has soared to 91% in January, indicating that it is spreading fast and has become the predominant lineage in the Amazon..
However, other factors have also contributed to the tragedy in Manaus. In these months there is a greater circulation of other respiratory viruses in the Amazon region, such as influenza, complemented by a social exhaustion of the distancing measures in the middle of the Christmas holidays.
All this, together with the new variant and the scarce hospital infrastructure of Amazonas, has caused the collapse of its health system and a shortage of oxygen for critically ill patients that could have caused more deaths.
The Brazilian Minister of Health, Eduardo Pazuello, is being investigated for this.
IS THERE A RISK OF AN AGGREGATION OF THE PANDEMIC IN BRAZIL?
According to the experts consulted, if this new variant is established throughout the territory, which may already be happening, it is possible that it will worsen the delicate health situation of the country.
Former Health Minister Luiz Henrique Mandetta, who was dismissed in the middle of the pandemic by President Jair Bolsonaro for defending isolation, warned in an interview on local television that the new variant can cause a “mega-epidemic” in 60 days, if no action is taken.
At the moment, in Brazil, outside of Amazonas, three imported cases of the variant have been detected in the state of São Paulo (southeast), but the number may be much higher.
IN WHAT OTHER COUNTRIES HAS IT BEEN DETECTED?
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), cases of this new lineage have already been identified in seven other countries besides Brazil: Japan, United States, United Kingdom, Italy, Germany, South Korea and Ireland.
Some of these nations and others, such as Portugal, Peru, Turkey or Colombia, have suspended flights from Brazil due to fear of P.1.
ARE TODAY’S VACCINES EFFECTIVE?
Several of the vaccines developed to date were conceived from the “spike” protein of the coronavirus.
In this sense, those that are based purely on this protein, the mutations registered in the British, South African and Brazilian variants “can lead to a loss of efficacy” of these formulas, “although not total”, considers Levi.
Effectiveness studies with the Brazilian variant have not yet been published.
(By Carlos Meneses Sánchez – EFE)