During the few weeks of decline in Coronavirus infections a few months ago, there was an assumption that we had almost won the battle against Coronavirus, but sooner than we thought, the second wave emerged. Again, people started dying and hospitals started filling up with coronavirus patients, but because many of the deaths are not being captured by NCDC records owing to reduction in testing, no one can ascertain the cause of their deaths.
Recently, the National Youth Service Corps, NYSC, took responsibility to test all corps members returning to camp, only to discover that 138 of them tested positive. If the test had been neglected, any of these 138 corps members could have died without anyone knowing the cause. Also, the 138 could have infected other corps members, while those returning to their bases and places of assignment could easily spread the virus (I used the word ‘easily’ because many of us have loosened our guards without taking required preventive measures, such as social distancing, mask wearing, etc).
Also, there is the possibility that elderly persons in the communities could have been infected and even died of the virus, thus increasing the chances of community spread of the virus.
The spread of this virus, if not further prevented, will definitely lead to a second wave (as being experienced in the western world) which may also affect the nation’s development in many sectors. With the second wave, we’ll also return to a more lengthier lockdown, seriously affecting both the economy and education system of the nation.
When the virus started spreading early in the year 2020, there was the assumption that only elders above 50 can die if infected, but virus mutation can change such trends to the extent of affecting infected young ones more than before. Example is the report that an explosive outbreak of COVID-19 among young people in a US University town spilt into the surrounding community, leading to the deaths of some people in local care homes.
According to another study authored by Dr James Musser of Houston Methodist Hospital, corona viruses such as SARS-CoV-2 are relatively stable as viruses go, because they have a proofreading mechanism as they replicate. But every mutation is a roll of the dice, with transmission so widespread in the United States, which continues to see tens of thousands of new, confirmed infections daily.
A mutation is a change in a DNA sequence, resulting from DNA copying mistakes made during cell division, exposure to ionizing radiation, exposure to chemicals called mutagens, or infection by viruses.
A Physician-Geneticist, Dr Francis S. Collins explained that Acquired mutations are usually due to something in the environment and their effects are usually only present in the cells that were exposed to that environmental trigger. So, some cells will have the mutation and other cells will have the normal sequence.
Changes in COVID-19 Strains
According to WHO reports, as of 20 February 2020, a cumulative total of 75,465 COVID-19 cases were reported in China, based on the National Reporting System (NRS) between the National and Provincial Health Commissions. The NRS issues daily reports of newly recorded confirmed cases, deaths, suspected cases, and contacts. A daily report was provided by each province at 0300hr in which they report cases from the previous day.
What is COVID-19 Mutation?
Coronavirus mutation, according to a Virologist and Lecturer at Adeleke University, Ede, Osun State, Dr Kola Oladipo,= is “the property of a virus to undergo changes when it multiplies. As it replicated, it may not produce exact replicas of itself, resulting in the emergence of new strains, which may be more or at times less effective. Some strains die out, while the more effective ones, which spread efficiently, survive”. He noted that Coronavirus is genetically a single-stranded ribonucleic acid (RNA) virus and viruses of this kind mutate, example of which is influenza virus.
According to the scientific project manager for the COVID-19 Genomics United Kingdom Consortium, Dr Ewan Harrison, “It’s a microscopic package of genetic instructions bundled in a protein shell. When a virus infects a person, the string of genetic instructions enables the virus to spread by telling it how to replicate once it enters a cell. The virus makes copies of itself and pushes them out to other cells in the body and the infectious doses of the virus can be coughed out in droplets and inhaled by others.”
Coronavirus mutation versus Coronavirus second wave
As the second wave of the coronavirus continues to spread around the globe, researchers have found that the virus is changing its genetic makeup slightly. But does that mean it is becoming more dangerous to humans? What would the impact be on any future vaccines?
According to an infectious disease Epidemiologist at Harvard University, Dr Marc Lipsitch, there is, so far, no credible evidence of a change in the biology of the virus either for better or for worse, although, corona viruses, like all viruses, change small parts of their genetic code all the time.
Dr Olayinka Ilesanmi of the Department of Public Health, University College Hospital, also confirmed that from the various available evidence so far, the mutation that occurs does not actually make the virus more virulent, noting that the issue with some of the countries with second wave is that “they have reduced the level of response they started earlier, such as dropping the use of facemasks, and other non pharmacological means of responding to the outbreak.” This, according to him, is the reason such countries are having more cases and giving the impression that there is a mutation and that the virus is getting more severe.
He noted that according to a recent publication from University College, London, the number of mutations that have been identified from SARS-COV-2 are above 12,000 and with all these mutations, the virus seems not to be more virulent but because of the reduction in observance of pandemic protocols by people, there is still a second wave in some countries.
Dr Ilesanmi also explained that, in Nigeria, the number of cases now are not as they were because of the reduction in testing due to the EndSARS protest. He noted that “at this time, people feel we are winning the battle against the virus but that is not the case; the reason is actually because we are not testing enough. People still die but some are not being captured by the system as no one gets to find out the cause of a sudden death in a village or rural area”.
Can COVID-19 Mutation affect a potential vaccine?
Scientists noted that there is very encouraging data that this mutation is not going to have an effect on immunotherapeutics and the vaccines, but it is preliminary data, noting that researchers need to run more experiments before submitting the findings for publication.
When the pandemic first occurred earlier this year, a virologist, Dr David Montefiori, wondered how the deadly virus behind the pandemic might be changing as it passed from person to person, thinking the same thing might happen with SARS-CoV-2.
Speaking on the effect of mutation on COVID-19 vaccines, Dr Ilesanmi said the reason it has been difficult to develop vaccines for viruses is the mutation. This is because there is the need to allow the virus to mutate to be able to ascertain the strength of which vaccine can fight different mutants of SARS-COV-2.
On vaccine development research, Dr Oladipo noted that it is not likely that the virus mutations affect the outcomes because such factors are taken into consideration while developing the candidates’ vaccine. But if such happens, the way the flu vaccine was handled will be the same for these candidates’ vaccines.
Also, Dr Oladipo agreed that “with the unpredictable mutations of the virus, it is possible to have a successful vaccine which will help to fight the virus but with serious scientific research as long the vaccine developers have used the most conserved region of the virus genome to develop the vaccine. This is also dependent on the type of vaccine in question.”
Dr Ilesanmi noted that someone you have never met nor come close to can never give you COVID-19; contacting the virus is mostly through people you are close with, with whom you work or live, hence, the need for us all to protect ourselves as well as others.
Preparation for COVID-19 mutation and the second wave.
The fight against COVID-19 is not just for the Government or public and private sectors, it is a fight for every individual because when it enters the second wave or starts mutating, no one can assure of its virulence. Hence, it is important to constantly do the following, among many other precautions:
- Daily and constant use of facemasks. This is to prevent you from getting infected by the person standing or sitting next to you; also helps you not to infect those around you.
- Social Distance. We have often been told to keep a six feet distance from the person next to us, this is to prevent the spread of the virus. Doing this will keep us a bit far from the infected persons next to us.
- Cough into your elbow. Rather than coughing into the air, thereby spreading the virus through droplets from your mouth, or coughing into your palms with which you shake others and spread the infections in the droplets, cough into your elbow and you’re sure you’re keeping others safe.
- No handshake or body hug. This measure is really very important because you might come in contact with an asymptomatic carrier who has either coughed into his/ her hands, cleaned her face with his/ her palms or has palm sweat, shaking hands with such people easily aids you being infected with the virus on his/ her palms which is invisible to you.
- Hand washing with soap and water. This is a very good habit to be cultivated in order to reduce the spread of any and every infection. When your hand is properly washed with all the fingers and nails well scrubbed, whatever residual on the palm is washed off and the hands becomes clean and safe. But still, avoid handshake because you don’t know if the other person kept the measure you just observed.
- Sanitise your hands. Most times, we want to replace hand sanitisation for handwashing forgetting that they both have their distinct functions. Hand sanitisation is to keep your hands safe from the next object you don’t have a choice but to touch. Your Boss or subordinate hands a file over to you, you have some cash to pay to someone or collect from someone and so many other instances. The only time we should learn to replace handwashing for hand sanitisation is when we can’t get or use water.
- Touch doorknobs with your elbow not your hand. This is because you don’t know if the last person who touched the doorknob is infected or not, so, keep yourself safe by learning and living the new normal. But if it’s a door so strong or heavy that you must open with your hand(s), then, wash your hands immediately if you can, if not, sanitise your hands immediately,
- Avoid crowded areas. Parties are getting back and halls are getting jam parked again with no social distance measures because we all believe ‘kò sí kòró mó’, (meaning, ‘no more Coronavirus’) we are quickly forgetting that crowded places easily aid multiple infections after which you wonder where you got an ailment from. Same is applicable to this virus which is contacted faster and unknowingly.
- Get tested. Getting tested for the virus and knowing that you’re negative helps you to maintain the earlier precautions to remain safe. Also, getting tested and getting to know that you are positive helps you to take necessary precautions like isolating and getting medications to quickly get over the virus, as well as halt the spread once you are diagnosed.
- Hygiene practices. Cleanliness, they say, is next to godliness. Unkempt habits naturally break immunity and cause illnesses. It is important we keep our environment clean and healthy, as well as making sure that our bodies are well kept and clean.
We all need to understand that we are in the new normal and the necessary precautions should be put in place so that the second wave of the virus is reduced and overcome, as well as get secured against any virulent mutation.
In view of the above, it is important for people to know that the fight against SARS-CoV-2, also known as Coronavirus or COVID-19, is yet to be won. Research is ongoing to get a lasting solution to the virus and its mutagen through the use of a potent vaccine, hence, the need for everyone to join in the fight against the virus by observing all the non pharmacological measures, in addition to the ones mentioned above.
According to Dr Ilesanmi, “the good mutation often makes the virus less virulent but the bad mutation, which is the fear, can make it more virulent, more people getting infected and more people dying. As it is at the moment, it is too early to say that can never happen. If need be, we even need to do more because viruses mutate and no one can say if the next mutation will still be good or bad, hence, we should just put all our guards in place and try to prevent as much as possible. Whoever needs to be tested should be tested; whoever is positive should be well managed.”