Focus on spike proteins as mutations multiply | Daily News

Focus on spike proteins as mutations multiply

Scientists have zeroed in on a handful of mutations in the coronavirus that they say could pose new public health challenges if they circulate widely.

Their focus: the tiny spike proteins that cover the outside of the virus.

It’s those proteins that researchers have targeted to create vaccines, using them to prime the body’s immune system to make antibodies to fight the virus. But it’s also where they’ve observed some mutations that have forced vaccine manufacturers to react. A variant first found in South Africa is of particular interest because of mutations to the spike protein that can make antibodies less effective.

And while none of those changes seem to have resulted in a virus that’s able to evade the current vaccines, it’s an area of intense focus for researchers.

“The spike protein is like the key that unlocks our cells,” said Simon Clarke, an associate professor of cellular microbiology at the University of Reading in England. “If you have mutations on the spike protein, it could make that key work more effectively, or it could change the structure of the key ever so slightly so that it can still gain access to our cells, and now antibodies can’t bind to it and stop it from working.”

An early analysis from Moderna found that while its vaccine appears to be less effective against the South African variant, antibodies remained above protective levels. The Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine is only slightly less effective against the South African strain, according to a study that hasn’t yet been peer-reviewed.

The coronavirus is likely to have undergone thousands of changes since it spilled over into humans. Several variants, including one that was first reported in the U.K. and another that is thought to have emerged in Brazil, are already being tracked worldwide.

But scientists remain anxious about the emergence of other coronavirus variants, especially if one renders the vaccines obsolete. (NBC)