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What are Variants of Concern (VOC) and Why Should I Care?

All viruses are sneaky and tricky. It’s normal and expected for them to mutate and change, making it easier for them to spread and infect us. Viruses multiply by making copies of itself over and over, but sometimes the copies aren’t perfect.  The imperfect copies are called variants.  Often the variants are weak and don’t survive.  But sometimes the variants are stronger versions of the disease so scientists closely study and keep track of the changes that develop. Variants are classified into three categories: Variant of Interest, Variant of Concern (VOC) and Variant of High Consequence.  Lately we’ve been hearing the term Variant of Concern in the news.  A VOC is a variation of the original virus that now spreads more easily, causes more severe disease, the immune system can’t block it as well, and treatments, vaccines or diagnostic detection can be less effective.

You may recognize the names of three VOCs that are infecting people, not only in countries around the world but also here, in Ontario: B1.1.7, B1351 and P1.  Let’s take a closer look.  B1.1.7 was first detected in the UK, B.1351 originated in S. Africa and P1 was first found in Brazil. The recent mutations have caused a change in the virus’ outer structure which makes it easier and faster for the virus to get into our cells.  Once in, the VOCs push your system even harder to make more copies so that now, every breath you exhale has more virus particles in it for other people to breathe in.  Another sneaky feature is that you won’t feel or look sick so you go about your life thinking you don’t have COVID.

The B1351 and P1 variations have the “Eek” mutation and can trick your antibodies (your immune system cells that block the virus) so they can’t attach to the virus and may not even recognize it. Scientists are studying the effectiveness of vaccines against these two VOCs.  B1.1.7 doesn't have the Eek mutation so current vaccines are effective against it.

Nonetheless, B1.1.7 is causing a lot of problems and infecting even young healthy people because it makes a huge number of viral particles that the immune system can’t fight off fast enough before settling into the lungs.

But, the good news is that the Coronavirus mutates slowly. In comparison, the Influenza virus mutates so quickly that new strains pop up constantly and we need a new flu vaccine every year.  The slow mutation rate means our immune system can adapt and vaccines developed will be effective for longer while we work on stopping the spread.

In the meantime, Public Health rules of keeping distance, masks and lockdowns are very powerful tools against the virus.  Whatever the virus mutates into doesn’t change the fact that they can’t move on their own--they need us to make copies and to bring the virus to other people.  While not popular with everyone, a lockdown is the fastest way to stop you from breathing someone else’s VOCs.







https://podcasts.apple.com/ca/podcast/ontario-morning-podcast-thursday-april-1-2021/id447055175?i=1000515358995    36:48 - 43:29  Dr. Peter Lin


WHO information