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A futuristic research strategy is to raise the vaccine against more regions of the virus: Dr Deepak Sehgal

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As more than 40 countries ban flights from the UK in a bid to control the spread of the new variant of the coronavirus which causes COVID-19, Dr Deepak Sehgal, Professor and Head, Department of Life Sciences, Shiv Nadar University says the current vaccines should still be effective and that in terms of future strategies, vaccines under research need to have as many epitopes making antibodies as possible so that mutation in one protein, one epitope, can be countered by others. He also states that focused funding is required for prioritising viruses bearing high virulence, are easy to spread and difficult to contain, in an interaction with Viveka Roychowdhury

What is known so far about the new strain/variant of the coronavirus detected in the UK, reportedly called VUI – 202012/01?

The spike protein is located on the top of the spikes, depicted by graphic representations of the virus, giving it the crown-like appearance which adheres to the human cell facilitating the virus entry. It is defined by multiple spike protein mutations (deletion 69-70, deletion 144, N501Y, A570D, D614G, P681H, T716I, S982A, D1118H) present as well as mutations in other genomic regions.

A SARS-CoV-2 variant, referred to as SARS-CoV-2 VUI 202012/01 (Variant Under Investigation, the year 2020, month 12, variant 01), has been identified through viral genomic sequencing in the United Kingdom (UK) by a consortium. On December 19, 2020, in response to the increase of this variant, UK has announced stricter measures with affected areas going into a ‘Tier 4’ level with movement restrictions within and between more and less heavily affected areas.

These measures include recommendations for residents of the most affected areas to restrict movements and travel, including international travel, outside of these areas. The Government of Scotland announced a travel ban between Scotland and rest of UK from December 26. Netherlands issued a travel ban from the UK. Three main questions about the new strain remain to be answered.

  1. Is the new variant more transmissible and easy to spread? The variant is significantly more transmissible than previously circulating variants, with an estimated potential to increase the reproductive number (R) by 0.4 or greater. Its transmissibility is increased up to 70 per cent, but increased infection severity associated with the new variant is not reported.
  2. Will it increase fatality amongst humans or cause severe illness?

This cannot be confirmed unless a good number of patients affected by the variant are studied

  1. Can it decrease or end the body’s immune responses, including those encouraged by vaccines?

Based on the data generated and the findings, it is unlikely that there will be any changes to the response for any vaccine being produced including Moderna, Oxford or Pfizer etc.

Does it change the symptoms or disease progression? Is it really up to 70 per cent more transmissible, as there has been no hard data on this but based on modelling? Could the higher transmissibility be due to people’s behaviour, or the UK’s better methods of genetic screening?

The 70 per cent figure comes from the screening by EDC. The data comes from an exhaustive screening of 125000 samples of the COVID positive patients

How should India’s policymakers strategise to detect this strain in India, and also track other mutations in the coronavirus?

It is difficult for India to do the genome sequencing and screening at such a large scale. In case India wants to do, they need to set up special centres with modern equipment. However, the Government should follow:

Strict adherence to non-pharmaceutical interventions according to national policies needs to be communicated to the public, and the guidance on safety norms and non-essential travel and social activities should be stressed. The silver lining is that the variant will not require additional measures to be taken. The Government should insist on proper mask-wearing that include a minimum of 3 ply or N95 masks. Currently, the masks used by many do not prevent the virus.

Similarly, cases with treatment failures using convalescent plasma or monoclonal antibodies should be further studied. Close monitoring of COVID-19-vaccinated individuals needs to be ensured to identify possible vaccination failure and breakthrough infections. Virus isolates from these cases should be sequenced and characterised genetically and antigenically.

Would it be feasible for India to ramp up current genomic screening rates to detect if the virus strains in India are changing?

India is not doing genetic screening as of now. RT-PCR is the test to detect COVID and not the strain. India has to start from scratch, and this may well take longer.

Will the current vaccines in trial phases still be effective against this and other mutations in the coronavirus causing COVID-19?

Vaccines are made against several regions on the spike protein. This mutation is only in one place; hence the vaccine specific to other regions should stay alive. For the vaccine to be an ineffective good number of mutations on spike protein having antigenic sites are required, the chances of which are bleak but still cannot be ruled out completely.

Experts have predicted that the coronavirus vaccine might need to be taken annually in some countries, like the flu vaccines. What would be the research strategy to adopt when modifying existing vaccines or designing new vaccines for COVID-19?

By the information available, we cannot predict how long the vaccine will be effective. It may be from six months to three years. Antibodies that reflect the vaccine efficacy were found to exist up to three years in SARS as quoted by the CDC. This may also vary upon the type (Company) of the vaccine. A lot needs to be studied, e.g. time and dosage of the booster dose and many other parameters.

A futuristic research strategy is to raise the vaccine against more regions of the virus which may involve, membrane and capsid proteins other than the spike protein in order to nullify the effect of a mutation in one of the regions.

What are the learnings from the pandemic for the future of life science research? Do you think there will be more funding for R&D into infectious diseases?

Vaccine research needs to be modified with the concept to have as many epitopes making antibodies as possible so that mutation in one protein, one epitope, can be countered by others. The country should prepare in advance for other deadly viruses like Ebola, Chikungunya or Dengue etc.

There should certainly be more funding in case we work on the futuristic viruses. More focused funding is required (for) prioritising the viruses bearing high virulence, easy to spread and difficult to contain. This also requires a high risk and high stake viruses. The bacterial pathogens leading to pandemic should also be prioritised and funded.

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