The New COVID-19 B117 Variant vs. Humans: How Is Evolution Working Here?

Written by Clea Seares
Illustration by Anika Borja
Published 01 March 2021

In September 2020, a new COVID-19 variant called the B117 variant started to run amok in the United Kingdom. This variant acquired 23 mutations that altered its spike protein, which allows the virus to enter human cells. Such mutations let the virus easily invade human cells, making this variant 50-70% more contagious compared to other variants.[1,2] By January 2021, it has already infected about 1,400 people in the United Kingdom. Eventually, the presence of the B117 variant in the Philippines was confirmed on January 13, 2021, when the Department of Health reported that a 29-year old Filipino male who just came from Dubai tested positive for the variant.[1] And just 5 days later, 16 new cases of the variant were reported.[3]

It is through the process of evolution that the B117 variant, alongside other variants of the SARS-CoV-2, emerged. Organisms, including humans, evolve by gradually accumulating mutations that give them an upper edge over other members of their species in surviving in their ever-changing environment. Through natural selection, Mother Nature “selects” organisms with the most advantageous traits, allowing them to adapt to the current conditions of their habitat and to pass on their traits to their offspring.

With that, there are two reasonable explanations as to how the B117 variant appeared as a product of evolution. First, the variant may have surfaced in response to the evolution of previously infected humans whose immune systems have adapted by producing immunoglobulin G (IgG) antibodies in their bodies that could fight the virus should they be infected again. More specifically, the variant likely emerged from the Brazilian variant that infected 76% of the people living in Manaus, Brazil in consideration of how 44% of the population was found to have such antibodies. Perhaps, a person from said city got infected by the virus once again. Then, the presence of antibodies in said person’s body became a selective pressure for the virus. Although these antibodies possibly neutralized most of the virus particles, it is likely that one of these particles–the B117 variant–which had mutations that altered its spike protein, resisted and outraced the antibodies, allowing it to multiply quickly in the infected person’s body. Afterwards, its offspring were passed on to someone else through the infected person’s respiratory droplets, and the cycle continued. On the other hand, it is possible that the variant emerged–in a similar fashion–in an infected person who received treatment for antibodies that came from a recovered patient to strengthen the former’s already weak immune system.[4,5]

The explanations point out a notable concept of evolution: the Red Queen hypothesis, as inspired by Lewis Carroll’s “Through the Looking-Glass” which stars Alice in Wonderland. The Red Queen once told Alice that “It takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place. If you want to get somewhere else, you must run at least twice as fast”.[6] The hypothesis, therefore, suggests that two species–in this case, Homo sapiens and the SARS-CoV-2 virus–are engaged in an evolutionary arms race as they “evolve side by side in response to each other, both vying for survival by adapting to the pressure of coexistence”.[6] The appearance of this deadly virus quickly prompted pharmaceutical companies to respond by creating vaccines. Subsequently, as antibodies were produced by the immune systems of previously infected humans, the virus responded by evolving as well, thus creating new variants.

The emergence of the B117 variant has raised concerns regarding the efficacy of vaccines against said variant. Fortunately, recent studies done by Professor Ravi Gupta’s team from the University of Cambridge found that the Pfizer BioNTech vaccine remains to effectively combat said variant. Even if its efficacy was slightly reduced, it still provides enough protection against the variant. This is because the variant’s genetic code is likely to be “very similar” to that of the original strain. Despite this, Professor Gupta believes that newer versions of current vaccines must be updated in the future, just like how flu vaccines are occasionally renovated, to fully ensure that newer variants will be under control.[7,8]

It is important to note that the SARS-CoV-2 virus will continue to evolve under the influence of vaccines. As mentioned, the SARS-CoV-2 virus evolves to adapt to its environment’s changing conditions to survive under selective pressures. Still, it can be assured that the virus won’t become vaccine-resistant. Drs. David A. Kennedy and Andrew F. Read, both from the University of Pennsylvania, see only a slim chance of the virus becoming resistant to vaccines. In accordance with their studies, they have found that most viruses and bacteria easily evolve resistance to drugs, especially antibiotics, and hardly to vaccines. Drugs are only taken when a virus or bacteria is already reproducing in one’s body. Especially when the drug is ingested for more than the recommended amount of times, the pathogens will gradually evolve in response to the drug attack. In contrast, vaccines immediately take effect even when one is not infected yet. As such, the virus will have a hard time evolving because it is immediately recognized by the person’s immune system, considering that the latter already had a taste of how the virus attacks (thanks to the vaccine) and had already prepared antibodies beforehand. Nevertheless, even if Drs. Kennedy and Read Dr. Kennedy guarantee that vaccines that are based on the SARS-CoV-2’s spike protein will already induce a broad response from the immune system, they urge pharmaceutical companies to stay vigilant and be ready to create new vaccines whenever the need for it arises.[9]

Until now, normalcy remains to be out of reach, and the evolution of the virus continues to be a concern for everyone. However, even if there is no end and thus no absolute winner in this evolutionary arms race as both humans and viruses in general continuously evolve, constantly keeping our own species’ defenses up in the form of antibodies and vaccines will let us remain as frontrunners.

References:

  1. Magsambo B. DOH confirms 1st case of UK COVID-19 variant in PH [Internet]. 2021 Jan 13 [cited 2021 Feb 20]. Available from: https://www.rappler.com/nation/doh-confirms-first-case-uk-covid-19-variant-philippines-january-13-2021
  2. Kennedy D. Why it matters that the coronavirus is changing – and what this means for vaccine effectiveness [Internet]. 2021 Jan 04 [cited 2021 Feb 20]. Available from: https://www.rappler.com/science/life-health/why-it-matters-coronavirus-changing-vaccine-effectiveness
  3. Lalu GP. 16 new COVID-19 patients confirmed to be UK variant carriers — DOH [Internet]. 2021 Jan 22 [cited 2021 Feb 20]. Available from:  https://newsinfo.inquirer.net/1387187/16-new-covid-19-patients-confirmed-to-be-carrying-uk-variant-doh-2#ixzz6mA98wjMZ
  4. Alphes R. Coronavirus variants: how did they evolve and what do they mean? [Internet]. 2021 Jan 21 [cited Feb 21]. Available from: https://theconversation.com/coronavirus-variants-how-did-they-evolve-and-what-do-they-mean-153405
  5. Buss LF, Prete Jr. CA, Abrahim CMM, Menendrone Jr. A, Salomon T, de Almeida-Neto C et al. Three-quarters attack rate of SARS-CoV-2 in the Brazilian Amazon during a largely unmitigated epidemic. Science [Internet]. 2021 15 Jan [cited Feb 21];371(6526):288-292. Available from: https://science.sciencemag.org/content/371/6526/288
  6. Gawrylewski A. Warfare in Wonderland [Internet]. 2020 Mar 12 [cited Feb 21]. Available from https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/warfare-in-wonderland/
  7. Brierly C. Pfizer BioNTech vaccine likely to be effective against B1.1.7 strain of SARS-CoV-2 [Internet]. 2021 Feb 02 [cited Feb 22]. Available from: https://www.cam.ac.uk/research/news/pfizer-biontech-vaccine-likely-to-be-effective-against-b117-strain-of-sars-cov-2
  8. Smith E, Ng A. Experts expect vaccines to protect against the UK’s fast-spreading Covid strain [Internet]. 2020 Dec 21 [cited Feb 22]. Available from: https://www.cnbc.com/2020/12/21/covid-vaccines-will-protect-against-new-strains-of-the-virus-doctor.html
  9. Gorman J, Zimmer C. The Virus Won’t Stop Evolving When the Vaccine Arrives [Internet]. 2020 Dec 02 [cited Feb 22]. Available from: https://www.nytimes.com/2020/11/27/science/covid-vaccine-virus-resistance.html

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