Vials with COVID vaccines

A More Discreet COVID Variant That Tricks The Immune System

Scientists at a Scottish university have succeeded in proving that the N439K strain is more virulent, and knows how to fool antibodies
Vials with COVID vaccines
This variant can fool the immune system | iSTOCK

Only a few weeks ago, it was almost impossible to find anyone who did not agree with the same idea: 2020 has been the worst year in living memory. All hopes were pinned on the new year; a 2021 that arrived with the long-awaited vaccine in its hands, and with it the longed-for normality, which was already beginning to be glimpsed in the distance. But with everything that has happened this January, these ideas are losing more and more supporters.

Vaccination is adding more and more problems; from lack of doses to suspicion of cheating by some pharmaceutical companies. On the other hand, the new wave of the pandemic is leaving us with thousands of new infections and hundreds of deaths every day.

The most changeable yet silent variant of coronavirus

It must be said that, beyond the infections, the new variants that have appeared are also in the spotlight. The ones that have generated the most concern have been the one from the United Kingdom (B.1.1.7), which is probably much more present than we think, and the one from South Africa (B.1.351).

However, according to a publication in the 'Cell' portal, the one that has received the least attention despite being the second most common in terms of receptor binding capacity has been the N439K variant. This is a variant that appeared, or at least was detected, for the first time in Scotland in March 2020, and has even left an independent variant: B.1.258.

The most worrying aspect of this strain, which is already present in at least thirty countries, is the virulence it shows when it comes to spreading, which, according to researchers at the MRC-University of Glasgow Centre for Virus Research, could entail a serious problem.  The N439K variant of Sars-CoV-2 is more resistant to antibodies, and this gives it the ability to "evade immunity while retaining the ability to infect and cause disease". 

"This is just the tip of the iceberg"

It is, in short, a much more changeable version, which "has many ways of altering the immunodominant domain," according to Gyorgy Snell, a distinguished director of biology. The researchers were able to determine, however, that this variant did not change the replication of the virus. What they were able to observe is that, when combining the N439K variant with antibodies from already recovered individuals, the proportion of defenses dropped considerably, which is a clear wake-up call.

The problem, however, is that there could be much more worrying variants out there, and the lack of sequencing means that most of them remain undetected. To give you an idea, of the more than 90 million cases of Covid-19, only about 350,000 variants of the virus have been sequenced. "That's only 0.4%, just the tip of the iceberg," experts warn.

There is a greater need than ever for "broad surveillance," in addition to a "more detailed understanding of the molecular mechanisms of mutations." In short, if we want to develop therapies as barriers to the various strains that are circulating or will emerge in the future, we need to be faster than the virus. For now, it must be said that several companies have assured that their vaccines are effective against the British and South African variants, but we must ask ourselves: Will they be useful for the new ones that will emerge in the future?

[This is a translation of the original article "La otra variante más discreta del coronavirus que trolea al sistema inmunitario" published in]