Viruses infect every form of life, leading to many serious diseases. They differ from other infectious organisms in structure and biology, particularly in their reproduction.
Despite having their own conventional genetic information carried in DNA or RNA, they are unable to process this information to produce new virus materials because they lack the synthetic machinery required for this process.
The Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome Coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2) that is responsible for the Covid-19 pandemic is an RNA virus that belongs to a large family of viruses known as the coronavirus.
SARS-CoV-2 is one of the viruses that lacks the synthetic machinery required for reproduction. What then, possesses this key machinery?
Viruses are able to utilise living cells, in particular human cells, to work for them by inserting their genetic materials into the infected human cell and subsequently take advantage of humans’ synthetic machinery for viral replication, leading to viral assembly, maturation, and virus release.
The normal human cell is capable of proofreading its own genetic material, whereby each copy produced is double-checked by a well-regulated system and those that are faulty will be eliminated to prevent mutation in the newly replicated cells produced.
However, mutations in virus particles are normal, whereby its next generation will carry slightly different genetic information compared to its original virus.
These mutated viruses are referred to as ‘variants’ of the original virus. Here’s an important question: why are these variants of concern (VOC) important?
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the VOCs have increased transmissibility, result in more severe disease (i.e. increased hospitalisations or deaths), show significant reduction in neutralisation by antibodies generated during previous infection or vaccination, and reduced effectiveness of treatments or vaccines.
Detecting the different strains of VOC prevalent in our country will aid in epidemiological studies, and the implications at for communities — i.e. how one community can be more severely affected than the other.
For example, if the pandemic is under control, and a new strain of VOC appears, we will be able to identify it and take immediate action to aid in public health measures in reducing the transmission of this new strain.
Referring to Ministry of Health (MOH) data taken from a study done using Whole Genome Sequencing during June 11 to 19, there were 14 Covid-19 positive cases of the Beta (B.1.351) variant in Malaysia’s community, followed by eight positive cases of the Delta (B.1.617.2) variant.
Infection by the Delta variant requires a much longer quarantine period of up to 21 days. The MOH and Institute of Medical Research (IMR) will actively study these VOCs and identify the different strains to provide background knowledge for epidemiological studies and public health measures.
How do we reduce and curb this problem from further damaging our health care system? Since SARS-CoV-2 is unable to reproduce without help from human cells, the only way to stop it from spreading further is to ensure that we are able to fight against it, and hopefully, eliminate it.
By doing so, we need to successfully vaccinate the majority of the population and create herd immunity. The less people who contract the virus, the lesser the chance for the virus to undergo mutation.
Hence, the role of vaccination in eliminating these VOCs, and ultimately SARS-CoV-2 itself, is of utmost importance. In order to win this battle, we have to act fast before the virus further mutates and create more devastating VOC.
Being vaccinated does not mean one is immune against the virus. Instead, the body will be able to react against the virus more efficiently within a shorter period of time compared to those who are not vaccinated.
Therefore, even after being vaccinated (one or two doses), it still is important to wear masks, wash hands, ensure good ventilation, avoid crowded places, closed conversations and strictly adhere to all the SOPs set by the MOH.
Dr Ng Yunn Yiing is from Hospital Raja Permaisuri Bainun, Ipoh.
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