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Network News • 28-01-2021

Can COVID-19 mutate into a more lethal variant?

Author: George Mangion
Published on Business Today on 28th January 2021

The coronavirus has taken a tighter grip on the world’s population and millions of infected cases are a sad reminder that it may be early days for Malta to sound jubilant in the hope that come next September, we can throw caution to the wind and start enjoying normality

A local newspaper reports that an index created by the University of Oxford shows Malta as one of the least strict countries in the European Union in terms of measures imposed to contain the spread of COVID.

This index considers restrictions such as curfews and school closures in more than 180 countries. It also evaluates travel restrictions, fiscal measures and vaccination programmes.  Malta was given a mark of 52.78 which compares to Cyprus registered a score of 84.26 and Greece and Italy scored 80.56 and 78.7, respectively.  Germany and Ireland have a high score of 85.19.

It comes as no surprise that given this relatively lax approach towards prevention, we note how MAM is calling for a weekend curfew and stronger enforcement as they sound the alarm over the steep flow of COVID-19 patients to Mater Dei hospital. They predict that at the recent high rate of daily infections, hospital beds equipped with ventilators will soon be fully occupied.

The Medical Association of Malta (MAM) said it was “seriously preoccupied” with the “persistently high number” of daily coronavirus cases, averaging more than 150 a day.  Malta is no exception with its open airports and seaports even though precautionary measures are taken not to allow passengers from certain destinations. 

Be it as it may, the association of doctors recommended introducing a 9pm curfew from Friday to Sunday for at least two weeks and scaling up enforcement on non-compliant establishments in particular at hotspots such as Paceville and Buġibba.

This curfew should also be enforced on the two days following carnival Sunday.  Hot on the heels of this suggestion from MAM, came the negative attitude was taken by MHRA (which is the lobby association protecting the rights of most hotels and some restaurants). 

It disagrees saying that it believes that curfews will push activities underground. As an alternative, it called on the government to ensure that those responsible for enforcement were adequately equipped to be more effective in enforcing the rules that are already in place, not only with restaurants but also with private gatherings.

The resistance against the imposition of curfews is a common factor in other EU states. In fact, this week, heavy clashes broke out in the Netherlands as anti-curfew demonstrators protested against coronavirus restrictions. The clashes came on the first day of a new 9pm to 4.30am curfew, the country’s first since World War II.  In the meantime, other countries imposed new border controls under pressure to slow the spread of new variants.

In essence, France introduced a requirement for incoming travellers from EU countries to possess a recent negative coronavirus test. A more drastic measure is that taken by Israel announced to even “close” its skies to almost all aircraft. But, one may ask, with the availability of at least three approved vaccines in the EU, why is there growing fear that the coronavirus remains dominant. 

Scientists tell us new variants are much stronger and spread much faster, with the consequence that it has altered the health risk assessments of both individuals and governments.  One may ask is Malta fully aware of the growing menace of this mutation?

The party faithful is very careful not to rock the boat and agree with the health administration attitude against lockdowns/curfews. Perhaps, they are ready to take more risks and give the factors of trade some slack to keep the cash flow flowing.

They advise the government to sail close to the wind and not impose lockdowns or curfews so as to protect the fragile balance of many workers who are surviving (till March) on a government-sponsored furlough scheme. By September, providence may help us acquire a herd immunity if 70% of the population takes the jab.  But this does not take into account new strains which are highly pervasive.

For example, there have been reports of large animal outbreaks in mink farms in several countries. It has been observed that these mink variants are able to transmit back into humans through close contact with the mink. Over the Christmas holidays, more infections placed Europe in a difficult position experiencing further disruptions to the movement of people and goods and accelerating the possibility the economy may fall into a double-dip recession. Medical journals warn us that as viruses replicate, they change, or mutate. Some mutations give these viral variants an edge, such as being better able to latch on to and infect human cells.

This has already manifested itself in the UK and is now showing up in states across the U.S. When a virus replicates or makes copies of itself, it sometimes changes a little bit. The more viruses circulate, the more they may change. These changes can occasionally result in a virus variant that is better adapted to its environment compared to the original virus. This process of changing and selection of successful variants is called “virus evolution”.

For the non-technically minded, one may add that in practice mutations can lead to changes in a virus’s characteristics, for example, it may spread more easily or increase its severity. This could in part be explained by the virus’s internal mechanism which can correct “mistakes” when it makes copies of itself. Many hours of dedication and closer study can eventually help scientists to understand how this works. 

Stronger variants mean they are better armed at evading the body’s immune system (eg variants that emerged recently in South Africa and Brazil). Quoting, Patrick Vallance, the UK’s Chief Scientific Adviser, he said the new variant could be around 30 per cent more deadly, although he stressed that only sparse data was available.

This means the more vulnerable will face a relatively high increase in risk. In its original version that surfaced early last year in China, this had established the initial pattern. Since then, last spring a mutation is known as D614G made it more likely for the spike protein to have a more open shape.

Another fast-spreading variant is labelled as B.1.1.7, which was identified last month in the UK. The local authorities have confirmed that in Malta traces were found of this killer virus (probably from passengers returning from Britain).  Now there’s preliminary evidence suggesting that this variant may be associated with a higher degree of mortality.

In South Africa, meanwhile, doctors and researchers are battling a surge of Covid 19 with a spiky variant, known as B.1.351. In conclusion, the coronavirus has taken a tighter grip on the world’s population and millions of infected cases are a sad reminder that it may be early days for Malta to sound jubilant in the hope that come next September, we can throw caution to the wind and start enjoying normality at a pompous celebration of Tal Victoria feast in Naxxar.

Author: George Mangion
Published on Business Today on 28th January 2021
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