THE GOOD AND THE BAD
DSars-cov2 has stayed relatively stable – and that is both a good thing and a bad thing. It is good because it means vaccines currently under development have a high chance of succeeding. It is a bad thing because there were hopes during the initial weeks of the pandemic that, like some viruses do, Sars-cov2 would mutate into an unviable strain and taper off o we know enough about the strains of the Sars-cov2 virus in India? How many strains are there? Is there one dominant strain? Are there multiple strains?
Last week, Malaysia claimed to have discovered a strain that was “10 times more infectious” and “easily spread by a superspreader”, but as researchers around the world were quick to point out, while this strain might have been new to that country, it was the predominant strain in most parts of the world even as far back as March and April (including in Europe). Called the G clade (a biological term meaning descendants of a common ancestor), this strain is the dominant strain in India. And it is, unfortunately, a virulent one, which could perhaps explain the virus’s run through the country; India ended Monday with 3.16 million cases of Covid-19, of which 762,051 were active. It saw 58,532 deaths till Monday night.
Around the same time the Malaysian authorities made their claim – resulting in sensational headlines around the world – researchers in Singapore wrote in a study published in The Lancet that a variant of Sars-cov2 with some of its DNA missing actually caused a milder infection than the other strain. In a small study, it was found that people in whom this strain was found did not require either oxygen support or to be put on the ventilator.
Compared to many other viruses, Sars-cov2 has stayed relatively stable – and that is both a good thing and a bad thing. It is good because it means vaccines currently under development have a high chance of succeeding. It is a bad thing because there were hopes during the initial weeks of the pandemic that, like some viruses do, Sars-cov2 would mutate into an unviable strain and taper off.
The ability of viruses to mutate is one reason why some experts are worried about Russia’s Sputnik-v vaccine, which hasn’t undergone the kind of rigorous tests any such vaccine should – an ineffective vaccine may, far from proving to be a cure, merely cause the virus to mutate, perhaps into something far more dangerous.
Not that Sars-cov2 in its current form is benign. Around the world, researchers and doctors no longer see Covid-19 as a respiratory disease – it affects everything from the kidneys to the brain – and are beginning, especially as they set out to answer questions about long-covid, to believe that it could be much more. Long-covid refers to the sometimes debilitating and long-drawn-out fallout of Covid-19 that some patients suffer – sometimes even without being seriously ill. Those trying to find out more about long-covid believe that one explanation for it could be that Covid-19 affects at least some patients the same way an autoimmune disorder does. An autoimmune disease is simply one where the immune system attacks the host (or an organ of the host), or one where it weakens the body’s response to infections. While this (accepting Covid-19 as an autoimmune disease) could explain some things, more research is needed before it can be classified as such.
Interestingly, one of the most promising lines of treatment for autoimmune diseases involves the use of monoclonal antibodies (called so because the antibodies are all made up of identical cells, each of which is cloned from the same parent). Several companies (Regeneron Pharmaceuticals, Eli Lilly) are testing monoclonal antibodies for Covid-19. HT’S health editor Sanchita Sharma has been writing about them from early July, from around the time Regeneron’s monoclonal antibody REGN-COV2 entered Phase 3 trials. Scientists believe that the use of monoclonal antibodies early on in the treatment of Covid-19 could save more lives.
Another treatment for autoimmune diseases involves the use of interferons – proteins released by the body’s immune system and which provoke, regulate, or amplify the response to pathogens. And companies are experimenting with interferons, too, in the treatment of Covid-19. A study reported in July, and conducted by the University of Southampton and a company Synairgen, showed that an inhaled interferon helped Covid-19 patients recover faster.
A vaccine is necessary and important, but we’d do well to keep track of the work being done on interferons and monoclonal antibodies.