The British variant of the corona virus, called Variant of Concern (VOC) 202012/01, is, as the name implies, cause for concern. This mutant is up to 70% more contagious because humans have higher virus concentrations in their noses. This mutant also seems to attach better to the cells of the airways.
How do these types of mutant arise? Viruses must multiply themselves quickly to keep the immune system from clearing them. Errors occur during copying. Often these errors have no effect: they have no function or they lead to a crippled virus. Viruses with these errors (mutants) will then disappear automatically. But sometimes the opposite happens. An error then leads to a virus that multiplies faster. In that case, such a mutant quickly gets the upper hand.
Mutants of the Corona virus
Quite a few mutants of the corona virus have already emerged. For example, a mutation in the original Wuhan virus has resulted in a more successful mutant circulating in Europe. Other mutants are now also emerging. The British mutant, in particular, is a cause for concern due to a higher degree of infectivity.
What's worse: a deadlier mutant or a more contagious mutant?
At first glance, a deadlier mutant seems more dangerous. Yet that is not the case. The virus is growing exponentially. With a more contagious virus, the number of infected people grows exponentially and more people die. This is explained in a (Dutch) video from nu.nl. This is of course a theoretical story, because we are talking about a situation where there are no measures.
Is vaccine efficacy affected by virus mutants?
The virus enters the body with the help of a "spike protein". Almost all vaccines that are or will be used focus on this protein. The vaccines train the body to recognize this protein. Some mutations have slightly altered the spike protein, so in theory the body's training could have a little less effect. Fortunately, the vaccines still seem to be able to mimic the mutants known so far well enough. Moreover, vaccines stimulate multiple components of the immune system to attack the virus. Not all parts are equally affected by the mutants.
Continuous battle between virus and vaccine
All in all, the vaccines also appear to be effective against the current virus mutants. Nevertheless, a mutant can develop against which the vaccines lose their effectiveness. It is therefore important to continue to monitor the virus closely and to adjust the vaccines if necessary. A race between the virus and vaccines is likely to continue in the future. Once much of the world's population has been vaccinated, virus mutants that escape the vaccines will be able to survive and multiply. Vaccines will therefore probably have to be constantly adjusted, as is the case with the flu virus. In short, we will have to take into account that we will have to deal with this corona virus for a long time.