The variant, known as the UK variant, has started to make up the majority of new COVID-19 cases in British Columbia and the country. According to federal data, there have been 4,039 cases of variant B.1.1.7 in British Columbia as of May 3.
The images were taken at near-atomic resolution with a cryoelectron microscope – essentially, imaging samples at liquid nitrogen temperatures – and may provide information on why the variant is spreading so rapidly, according to Dr. Sriram Subramaniam, Professor in the Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, UBC School of Medicine.
“The worrying B.1.1.7 variant, which was first reported to the World Health Organization in mid-December 2020, has an unusually high number of mutations,” Subramaniam said. “Of particular interest is a mutation known as N501Y located on the spike protein of the virus, which is what the virus uses to attach to human cells.”
This N501Y mutation is the only mutation of the B.1.1.7 variant located on the part of the spike protein that binds to the human ACE2 receptor, which is the enzyme on the surface of our cells that serves as a gateway for SARS-CoV-2.
The question is: will existing COVID-19 vaccines – administered to over 40% of British Columbians – remain effective against the variant?
“Our analysis revealed that even though the mutant N501Y can bind and enter our cells more easily, it can still be neutralized by antibodies that block the entry of the non-mutated version of the virus into cells,” Subramaniam said. , adding that it was looking at other variants as well, including P.1 (Brazilian), B.1.351 (South African), B.1.427 / B.1.429 (California), and B.1.617 (Indian).
“Understanding the different molecular structures of these emerging variants is important to determine whether they will respond to existing treatments and vaccines and ultimately find ways to control their spread more effectively,” he said.
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