If you mentally said “eek” to this news of the new COVID-19 variant, you’re not alone.
Doesn’t it just roll off your tongue much better than B117 variant first found in the U.K. or the B1351 variant that was detected in South Africa?
Anyway, you’re probably wondering right now…
Why Is It Called “Eek”?
The new variant of the virus actually carries the E484K mutation, which is a jumbly mess to say out loud (or type) much like the other variant names.
So, some scientists have very kindly decided to nickname it as “Eek”, which sounds very much like a squeal of disgust (as it should).
This is the aptest name I’ve ever heard.
When & Where Did This Strain Begin?
Hospitals in Japan’s capital of Tokyo found that many of their patients had contracted the new strain of COVID-19 last March.
The “troubling” “Eek” mutation was found in 10 out of 14 patients who tested positive for the virus at Tokyo Medical and Dental University Medical Hospital.
In addition, for the two months through March, 12 out of 36 people—one-third of them—who were infected with COVID-19 already carried the mutation. None of them had travelled abroad or were in close contact with others who had it.
TODAYonline also reports that the “Eek” mutation had already been discovered in other strains across the world.
Dr Ling Li Min, an infectious disease specialist from Rophi Clinic at Gleneagles Hospital noted that the “Eek” mutation happens to be the same mutation found in Brazil or South African variants.
How Does It Affect Us?
Much like the South African strain which became the predominant strain in the country, the “Eek” mutation allows the virus to be more transmissible.
Hsu Li Yang, the infectious diseases programme leader and associate professor at the Saw Swee Hock School of Public Health at the National University of Singapore (NUS), also pointed out that the “Eek” mutation leads to the virus having a better attachment to its target in the human cell.
So what does this mean for us all the way here in Singapore?
Well, the virus will be able to evade the antibodies produced by those who were infected before or those who have been vaccinated “to a limited extent”.
He said that these people are most likely still protected from the virus, but infection and disease might not be completely prevented.
Will Vaccines Still Be Effective Then?
According to Dr Ling, there are studies to show that the current vaccines are less effective against strains carrying the “Eek” mutation.
For instance, the Moderna vaccine and Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine were both shown to be 62% effective against the South African strain, as compared to their 95% and 94% effectiveness in relation to the original COVID-19 variant.
As for the AstraZeneca vaccine, its efficacy dipped to a mere 10%.
There is not yet any data available for the effectiveness of vaccinations on the Brazilian strain.
However, Professor Paul Tambyah, who is the president of the Asia Pacific Society of Clinical Microbiology and Infection (APCCMI), said that it was not completely clear whether the E484K mutation reduces vaccine efficacy.
“The numbers in the clinical trial are small and the reality is that the E484K mutation appeared before the vaccine rollout [at the end of last year], which suggests that the mutation did not emerge as a response to vaccination,” he said.
Why Do New Mutations Keep Popping Up?
Dr Gavin Smith, a professor in the emerging infectious diseases programme at Duke-NUS Medical School, explained that when a virus replicates itself, it will produce many different mutations.
These mutations come about as “errors” when the virus replicates itself when spreading from person to person.
However, only those that are able to spread itself among further populations survive.
Since the “Eek” mutation has been found in multiple parts of the world, this suggests that “it provides an advantage for the virus in escaping, at least partially, the immune response from a past infection, or from a vaccination,” according to Dr Smith.
Methods to Shut It Down
All experts agree that the most crucial step is still to vaccinate the population, despite the presence of mutations.
Dr Smith argues that vaccines still have a fighting chance against some mutations as they can slow down the transmission as well.
“You might produce less [viral shedding] so there is lower likelihood of subsequent spread.”
Associate Professor Hsu also suggested booster shots against COVID-19 once every few years—a potential long term solution to the pandemic.
Vaccines help in curbing infection rates and thus giving the virus fewer chances to mutate.
Moreover, experts agreed that safe distancing and hygiene measures will contribute to the effort.
For Singapore to achieve hard immunity, we need around 70% of the population to be vaccinated which may take till the end of the year. This would give time for the virus to mutate.
Thus, Dr Ling asserts that we can’t “bank on vaccinations alone” and must continue to abide by mask-wearing and safe management measures.
Eek! First “Eek” Case in Indonesia
The first case of the new mutation has reached Southeast Asian shores and had been identified on Tuesday (6 Apr), according to CNA.
A senior health ministry official, Siti Nadia Tarmizi, said that the one variant case has recovered and did not infect close contacts. She also added that the vaccines available could withstand the mutation.
However, Indonesia’s deputy director for fundamental research at the government-funded Eijkman Insitute refuted that such evidence had yet to be determined.
Furthermore, as AstraZeneca faces export curbs imposed by India to prioritise its domestic supplies, Indonesia has only received 20 million out of the 30 million doses it ordered.
Its vaccination programme aims to inoculate 181 million people and is relying heavily on a vaccine developed by China’s Sinovac due to shipment delays of the AstraZeneca vaccine.
Feature Image: Andrii Vodolazhskyi / Shutterstock.com