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Canadian researchers release first image of B.1.1.7 variant of Covid-19, exude faith in existing vaccines

The highly infectious B.1.1.7 variant of the coronavirus, first detected in the UK in December 2020, is responsible for the growing number of infections in many countries, including India and Canada.

By: Express Web Desk | New Delhi |
Updated: May 4, 2021 6:33:22 pm
The UBC researchers captured the structure of N501Y spike protein mutant (in blue) in UK variant of coronavirus. The mutant spike is seen attached to two copies of the ACE2 human receptor (in red). (Image courtesy: news.ubc.ca)

Researchers at the University of British Columbia have published the first structural images of a mutation in the B.1.1.7 variant of the SARS-CoV-2, which is also an indication that the existing vaccines against Covid-19 are likely to remain effective in preventing mild and severe cases caused by the variant.

The highly infectious B.1.1.7 variant of the coronavirus, first detected in the UK in December 2020, is responsible for the growing number of infections in many countries, including India and Canada.

In a statement from the University of British Colombia, Dr Sriram Subramaniam, professor in UBC faculty of medicine’s department of biochemistry and molecular biology, said since the SARS-CoV-2 virus is 100,000 times smaller than the size of a pinhead, they had to use a cryo-electron microscope to visualise the detailed shape of the virus and proteins on its surface.

Subramaniam said that while the viruses keep mutating over time, the B.1.1.7 variant has an “unusually large number of mutations”. A mutation, classified as N501Y, has been located on the virus’s spike protein, which is what the virus uses to attach itself to human cells, Subramaniam said.

“The images we captured provide the first structural glimpse of the N501Y mutant and show that the changes resulting from the mutation are localised. In fact, the N501Y mutation is the only mutation in the B.1.1.7 variant that is located on the portion of the spike protein that binds to the human ACE2 receptor, which is the enzyme on the surface of our cells that serves as the entry gate for SARS-CoV-2,” the UBC release quoted him as saying.

On the effectiveness of current vaccines against the coronavirus, Subramaniam said, “Our analysis revealed that even though the N501Y mutant can bind and enter our cells more readily, it can still be neutralised by antibodies that block the entry of the unmutated version of the virus into cells.”

The UBC is also examining other Covid-19 variants, including P.1 (Brazilian), B.1.351 (South African), B.1.427/B.1.429(Californian) and B.1.617 (Indian).

“It’s important to understand the different molecular structures of these emerging variants to determine whether they’ll respond to existing treatments and vaccines and ultimately find ways to control their spread more effectively,” Subramaniam said.

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