Author: Sara Habibipour
Recently, the United Kingdom has banned travel to Denmark after the spread of a mutated version of coronavirus due to farmed minks (CNN). 214 human cases have been identified in Denmark as a result of the minks, including 12 cases with a unique variant reported on November 5, 2020 (WHO).
Throughout the pandemic, we have seen several mutations of the SARS-CoV-2 virus that have only led to similar symptoms, and this mink mutation seems to be similar in that way. However, this new variant from minks in Denmark, the "cluster 5" variant, had a combination of mutations that have not been previously observed (WHO). The implications of this mutation are not yet well understood, and more research needs to be done. But, early findings indicate that this particular mink-associated variant has moderately decreased sensitivity to neutralizing antibodies (WHO), however more work needs to be done to confirm the accuracy of these preliminary findings. In the meantime, actions are being taken by Danish authorities to limit the further spread of this mutated virus, including culling its entire mink population (15-17 million minks) (CNN).
How Did This Happen?
According to the WHO, minks were infected following exposure from infected humans. As the virus spread among the minks, various mutations occurred, and there was a "virus spill-over" from minks back to humans. People then transmitted this mutated virus within the human population. The more often this spill-over occurs between humans and minks, the more genetic modifications in the virus can occur. These changes can be identified through whole genome sequencing, and when found, scientists can study the possible implications of these changes on the disease in humans (WHO).
But, what about the vaccine?
How will this variant affect current vaccine development that hasn't been focusing on this new mutation? Dr. Noc, a PhD immunologist and COVID-19 expert, says that the COVID-19 vaccines currently being developed will provide good coverage over most of the strains that are in circulation among humans. New mutations of the virus not included in this production may mean that as vaccines get rolled out (assuming that they pass Phase 3 testing), the new strain would slowly gain dominance as the other ones get eliminated. But, the vaccine is going to be constantly modified, as scientists are assuming that the COVID-19 vaccine will have to be an annual one like the flu. So, eventually, the mutated spike protein could be incorporated into a vaccine in the future.