By Dr. Zulfikar Bux
Assistant Professor of Emergency Medicine, Vanderbilt Medical Center
Kaieteur News – As you may know, there has been recent evidence of mutated strains of the coronavirus (Sarscov2) appearing in the UK and South Africa. These strains appear to be more infectious and have been associated with the recent surge in cases in those countries. These are not the first set of mutated strains from the virus; scientists have already discovered more than 20 mutated strains and expect more to occur as the virus continues to spread. Today, I will discuss why these mutations can pose a threat to our livelihood in the long run if we do not take proper actions to prevent the spread.
What happens when viruses mutate?
Viruses tend to mutate as they jump from host to host. The more hosts they infect means the longer they will be around and the likelier they will change their structure and thereby mutate. Mutations can make the virus more infectious, less infectious, more lethal or less lethal. Most of the time, the mutations weaken the effects of the virus but ever so often, it can make it more infectious or deadly. The strains discovered in the UK and South Africa are thought to be more infectious. What is worrying about this fact is that the higher the infection rate, the likelier the health systems will be overwhelmed leading to higher death rates.
What does this mean for us in Guyana?
I do not believe that the mutated strains from the UK and South Africa are with us in Guyana as yet. However, it has already been discovered in countries with high traffic to Guyana such as Canada and the USA. It may just be a matter of time before it arrives here and creates more chaos. Should this happen, I worry of an overwhelmed system that I keep warning about.
How will this affect the current vaccines?
Scientists are still researching the effects of the new strains on the effectiveness of the current vaccines they have developed. So far, the vaccines seem to be effective against the UK strain but there are some doubts over the South African strain. Scientists fear that the vaccines may be less effective against the South African strain and they may have to modify vaccines to accommodate the change in structure of this strain. The biggest worry is that if we continue to be reckless and allow this virus to spread, it will mutate faster and become like the flu virus, which cannot be eradicated, and new vaccines have to be developed every year to keep up with it.
How can mutations be avoided?
We obviously do not want to have a situation where this virus cannot be eradicated because it is mutating faster than we can vaccinate to control its spread. The best way to keep the mutation under control is to avoid the spread of the virus. Thankfully, the same preventative measures are standing the test of time and work against the spread of the mutated strains. Unless there is a miracle, I do not see a substantial proportion of Guyanese and the world’s population getting vaccinated in the first half of this year to control the spread of this virus. We therefore need to come together and wear our masks, watch our distance from others and wash/sanitize our hands regularly. If we do this and we do it properly, I do believe we can keep the coronavirus mutations under control until we all get vaccinated and eradicate it.
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