While the Brazilian P1 variant of the coronavirus is still home in Brazil, another mutation may be emerging. Scientists from the Federal University of Minas Gerais, in the city of Belo Horizonte, discovered in two patients a hitherto unknown combination of mutations.
“ We counted eighteen mutations, some of which are also seen in the well-known Brazilian variants and the British variant,” says virologist Renato Santana Aguiar. “But there are also new mutations, which may make it a unique variant.”
only when Santana and his team find these specific mutations in at least three other patients that a recognised new variant is available. “We are now going to search here, and in surrounding Länder, specifically,” says the scientist.
So it is a variant of a variant: “the most probable origin is the P1,” says Santana.
P1 variant twice as contagious
In his laboratory, every day new samples are brought from positively tested patients. “We monitor the genetic development of the virus, and identify which variants of covid-19 are in circulation here. There are five here in Belo Horizonte at the moment, of which the Brazilian P1 variant from Manaus is the most worrying.”
“ We have been able to demonstrate that this P1 variant is about twice as contagious as other variants,” says Santana. He participated in a major study of the most famous Brazilian variant, the results of which were published in the scientific journal Science.
Whether that P1 variant is more lethal is one of the questions that remain open. It is certain that the increase in the number of infections with the P1 variant in Brazil coincides with a sharp increase in the number of seriously ill people and deaths. Scientists such as Mauro Teixeira, doctor and chief researcher at the Federal University, investigate whether there is a direct link between them.
“ What is striking about this second wave is that the average age of patients is 15 years younger than during the first wave last year,” says Teixeira. He coordinates several corona-related studies in Belo Horizonte, a city with over 2.5 million inhabitants. “If you come to an ICU,” explains the researcher, “then it also strikes how many young people, often obese, are fighting there for their lives.”
But precisely because more young people get seriously ill compared to last year, the mortality rate appears to be lower. “The treatment is in young people. They often spend longer in the ICU, but they also survive more often.”
Teixeiras research team also follows hundreds of people who were vaccinated with Coronavac, the vaccine from the Chinese company Sinovac, which is heavily used in Brazil. According to the lead researcher, fast and many vaccination is the only way out for his country.
Professor Renato Santana agrees. “The vaccines we use now all protect against all known variants,” the virologist says reassuring. “But viruses evolve. Due to the slow rate of vaccination in Brazil, we give the virus the chance to develop. Until one day we have a variant that is resistant to the vaccines.”
The more infections, the higher the probability of variants
Whether the new variant he has discovered is more contagious, or resistant to vaccines, there is nothing to say about it now. “Lets see if this variant is found more often”, explains Santana. But the danger is obvious, the Brazilian scientist emphasizes: “the more infections, the greater the likelihood of new variants.”
He advocates measures to reduce social contacts as much as possible. That has been the subject of discussion since the beginning of the pandemic in Brazil. President Bolsonaro is an outspoken opponent of it. He therefore receives a lot of criticism, recently from Doctors Sans Frontières.
Today, in the Brazilian Senate, a parliamentary committee of inquiry is launching to examine Bolsonaros coronation policy. But Renato Santana does not interfere in political discussions. His message is clear: “In the world in which we live, a virus can end up on the other side of the world in a matter of hours. That is why we must all remain alert to outbreaks such as Brazil, or India”.