Wednesday, 19 June, 2024

Coping With Coronavirus Variants


Uttam Maharjan

The coronavirus is affecting 221 countries and territories across the world. It has infected over 235 million people and killed over 4.8 million across the word. One of the worrying aspects of COVID-19 is that it is continuously mutating, producing multiple variants and bringing about different waves of the disease. A variant of the coronavirus is one that has mutated owing to changes to its genes and that differs from other variants. Genetic differences between viruses enable scientists to identify variants and know how they are related to each other. The coronavirus has undergone multiple mutations, which has been documented by the US and the World Health Organisation.

The coronavirus is an RNA virus. Such viruses tend to evolve and change gradually. Geographical separation plays a key role in producing genetically distinct variants. This is what is happening right now. There are various variants of the coronavirus emerging on different continents. Mutation in viruses is a natural process. All RNA viruses mutate over time. New variants of the coronavirus are not the same as the original virus that emerged in China in December 2019. With the emergence of new variants, there is a question over the effectiveness of existing vaccines. As luck would have it, the current vaccines are still effective against various variants of the coronavirus.

In the US, the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) monitors all the variants of the coronavirus circulating in the US. Such variants are classified on the basis of the risks they pose to public health. There are categorised into four types: variants being monitored, variants of interest, variants of concern and variants of high consequence.

Virus variants
Variants being monitored do not have a serious or immediate impact on the health of people. Such variants are not detected or are circulating very slowly. However, there is evidence that these variants can potentially affect medical measures or they are associated with severe disease or they can be transmitted from one person to another. These variants are on the watch list; they are continuously monitored to ascertain their status so that it can be determined whether they can pose a significant risk to public health.

Variants of interest are more severe than variants being monitored. Several measures need to be taken to counter these variants. Genetic sequence surveillance needs to be enhanced, laboratory characterisation needs to be enhanced and epidemiological investigations need to be conducted in order to assess how easily the variants get transmitted, the severity of the disease, the efficacy of current treatments and the ability of current vaccines to counteract the disease.

Variants of concern are more transmissible, can cause more severe disease with high hospitalisation and mortality rates, make antibodies acquired during the previous infection or after vaccination ineffective, diminish the effectiveness of treatments and abort diagnostic detection. As these variants pose a greater threat to human health, measures need to be taken at local, regional or national levels to get rid of these variants at the earliest. Tests need to be increased, efforts need to be made to develop more effective treatments or vaccines and new diagnostic methods need to be designed. Sometimes, even existing treatments or vaccines need to be upgraded to cope with such variants.

Variants of high consequence are the most dangerous of all the variants. These variants greatly reduce the effectiveness of existing treatments or vaccines. They badly affect diagnostic tests. Where such variants are found, the number of infections is high and even vaccinated people could fall victim to the disease because the level of protection given by vaccines may be low vis-à-vis the virulence of the variants. This results in more severe cases, more hospitalisations and more mortality. To control such variants, effective measures need to be taken to prevent the transmission of the disease. It may happen that even treatments and vaccines will have to be upgraded to cope with the threat posed by such variants.

It is important to neutralise the transmission of COVID-19 by following health safety protocols and ramping up the inoculation drive on a world-wide scale. Health safety protocols include regularly using hand sanitiser or soap and water, wearing face masks, maintaining social/physical distancing and avoiding crowds or gatherings. If such precautionary measures are taken, the possibility of the coronavirus undergoing mutation will be slimmer. This will help reduce the transmission of the virus.

Human behaviour
On the other hand, vaccination breaks the chain of transmission. It is reported that most of the deaths related to COVID-19 have occurred in unvaccinated people. The more people are vaccinated, the less chance the coronavirus gets to mutate. That is why vaccination, together with an improvement in human behaviour regarding obeying health safety protocols, may be taken as a pis aller, when it comes to developing herd immunity and overcoming the threats of the virus.

It is a matter of gratification that Nepal is ramping up the inoculation drive. More and more people are getting vaccinated every day. At the same time, the number of infections and deaths has been on the wane for the past few weeks. The current situation points to the success of keeping COVID-19 at bay. On the one hand, the vaccination drive should keep going on, while on the other people should abide by health safety protocols, no matter whether they are vaccinated or not. The control of the coronavirus scourge will revive the economy as a whole, which has badly been ruined. In this respect, the efforts of the government, health workers and other stakeholders concerned are highly admirable.

(Former banker, Maharjan has been regularly writing on contemporary issues for this daily since 2000.