The New, Improved Coronavirus

The New, Improved Novel Coronavirus–SAR-CoV-2-v2 or Covid-19 B.1.1.7

24 December 2020

We have news from Great Britain, South Africa and a few other places that we have a new and improved version of the Covid-19 virus.  This one has a large number of mutations (8) to the RNA coding for the spike proteins (the pretty red appendages in the virus schematic sketch attached) that make the virus significantly more infectious–the new improved spikes latch onto human cells more effectively. Imagine a very fancy lock where the key and the lock are three-dimensional in shape, the mating of the key to the lock requires not only the right shape, but the right chemistry at distinct points–this is what the virus is working on when it evolves to make a better fit to the ACE2 receptors on human cells (used in controlling blood pressure), so it can latch on and infect the cell.  The numbers from Great Britain suggest the mutated virus may be as much as 75% more infectious, though apparently not any more lethal.

The real threat from this new virus, that is surely already present in the U.S. (or we could have developed our own version independently) is a much faster rise in infections, before we can get a significant percentage of our population vaccinated.  This will then lead to a rapid rise in the number of severe cases requiring hospitalization, the number of cases requiring treatment in ICU’s, and logically, a later rapid rise in the number of deaths.  This is not a good time for this development, as available ICU capacity across the U.S., and in California is nearly zero.  As of today, 24 Dec 2020, Santa Clara County is at 94% of ICU capacity, with only 18 beds available.  The rest of California is worse off.  The best thing we can do right now is to minimize the spread of Covid-19 by preventive measures and responsible behavior, until we get a lot of us vaccinated.  The good news is that scientists expect that existing vaccines will be effective against this new version, and the folks who developed the Pfizer vaccine–a Turkish immigrant couple who founded the German company, Biontech, have promised they could produce a new vaccine, if necessary, in only 6 weeks.

Dave Lewis, Santa Clara County Covid-19 Community Ambassador

About David Lewis

Happily retired from a long career as a college professor/research scientist/research manager in materials science, mechanical engineering, high power lasers, high power microwave systems, now working on civic issues, gardening, flying RC models at RSA, and helping to raise grandchildren.
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