Explainer: How to stop the formation of novel, dangerous COVID-19 variants

Olivia Miller
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The differences between COVID-19 and flu area crucial in our handling of them.

A new variant of SARS-CoV-2, the coronavirus that causes COVID-19, has caused great concern and calls for another lockdown. Here Professor Martin Michaelis and Dr Mark Wass of the School of Biosciences explain how we can get our lives back and stop new virus variants from emerging.

‘COVID-19 has caused worldwide devastation, with the UK being one of the worst affected nations. More than one in a thousand residents has already died and hundreds of individuals are dying daily. If we do not act, this is not going to stop any time soon. Evidence of communities with 70% to 80% of infected individuals suggest that eventually everybody will become infected with COVID-19 in the absence of measures. Short-lived immunity and the capacity of the virus to evolve and escape recognition by a pre-existing immune response indicate that the COVID-19 pandemic will continue, even after everybody has been infected once. Hence, we are on a path that will inevitably cost hundreds of thousands, potentially millions of lives.

‘There is intense debate about the balance between protecting lives and the economy in a pandemic. However, the evidence shows that there is actually no conflict between protecting lives and the economy, rather the opposite. Countries that have suppressed COVID-19 spread as much as possible have not only protected lives but also their economies. Taiwan has only reported seven deaths in a nation of 23.5 million so far, and its economy has grown this year. Other examples include Australia, New Zealand, South Korea, Vietnam, and Thailand. This is because countries with very low COVID-19 numbers can ease restrictions and get back to a much more normal, uninterrupted life.

‘If we want to achieve something similar in the UK, we will have to take one big effort to bring the numbers down to very low levels, ideally to lower than one case per million per day. Once, the numbers are down, everybody with infectious disease symptoms, be it respiratory/common cold or gastrointestinal symptoms will need to get a COVID-19 test, because all these symptoms can indicate COVID-19. Additionally, we will need regular random testing of asymptomatic individuals, at least of 1% of the population each week and more regularly of high-risk frontline worker groups that are in regular contact with many people such as health care workers, nursing home staff, police officers, and teachers. Once a COVID-19 case is identified, mass testing needs to be performed in the affected area to detect all infected individuals. In this way, transmission chains can be broken by isolating infected individuals and their contacts and, if necessary, local lockdowns without affecting larger areas or the whole country.

‘When the COVID-19 numbers are very low and effective detection strategies to identify isolated outbreaks are in place, restrictions can be eased, and we can turn back to a form of normality. We will still have to distance, to wear masks, and to be careful with hygiene and ventilation, but we will be able to meet people and not experience any of the severe contact restrictions that we are currently facing. This will also be the way to re-start the economy sustainably and without repeated disruptions. With the roll-out of vaccines and ever-increasing testing capacities, we should be able to achieve what other countries have achieved without having these tools.

‘Finally, such an approach has another advantage that is particularly emphasised in the light of the new threatening COVID-19 variant (VUI – 202012/01) that has recently been discovered in South East England and that may be associated with increased human to human transmissibility. If viruses do not spread, if they do not replicate in infected hosts, they do not mutate. Hence, the best strategy to avoid the formation of new potentially dangerous variants of SARS-CoV-2, the coronavirus that causes COVID-19, is to suppress its spread.’

Professor Michaelis and Dr Wass run a joint computational/ wet laboratory. Dr Wass is a computational biologist with expertise in structural biology and big data analysis. Prof Michaelis’ research is focused on the identification and investigation of drugs and their mechanisms of action, with a focus on cancer and viruses. With regard to viruses, Prof Michaelis and Dr Wass work on virus-host cell interactions and antiviral drug targets. In the cancer field, they investigate drug resistance in cancer. In collaboration with Professor Jindrich Cinatl (Goethe-University, Frankfurt am Main), they manage and develop the Resistant Cancer Cell Line (RCCL) Collection, a unique collection of 2,000 cancer cell lines with acquired resistance to anti-cancer drugs. They are also interested in meta-research that investigates research practices in the life sciences.

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