By last October, about three out of every four residents of Manaus, Brazil already had been infected with SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19 . And yet, despite hopes of achieving “herd immunity” in this city of 2.2 million in the Amazon region, the virus came roaring back in late 2020 and early 2021 to cause a second wave of illness and death . How is this possible?
The answer offers a lesson in viral evolution, especially when an infectious virus such as SARS-CoV-2 replicates and spreads through a population largely unchecked. In a recent study in the journal Science, researchers tied the city’s resurgence of SARS-CoV-2 to the emergence and rapid spread of a new SARS-CoV-2 “variant of concern” known as P.1 . This variant carries a unique constellation of mutations that allow it not only to sneak past the human immune system and re-infect people, but also to be about twice as transmissible as earlier variants.
To understand how this is possible, consider that each time the coronavirus SARS-CoV-2 makes copies of itself in an infected person, there’s a chance a mistake will be made. Each mistake can produce a new variant that may go on to make more copies of itself. In most cases, those random errors are of little to no consequence. This is evolution in action.
But sometimes a spelling change can occur that benefits the virus. In the special case of patients with suppressed immune systems, the virus can have ample opportunity to accrue an unusually high number of mutations. Variants carrying beneficial mutations can make more copies of themselves than other variants, allowing them to build their numbers and spread to cause more infection.
At this advanced stage of the COVID-19 pandemic, such rapidly spreading new variants remain cause for serious concern. That includes variants such as B.1.351, which originated in South Africa; B.1.1.7 which emerged in the United Kingdom; and now P.1 from Manaus, Brazil.
In the new study, Nuno Faria and Samir Bhatt, Imperial College London, U.K., and Ester Cerdeira Sabino, Universidade de Sao Paulo, Brazil, and their colleagues sequenced SARS-CoV-2 genomes from 184 patient samples collected in Manaus in November and December 2020. The research was conducted under the auspices of the Brazil-UK Centre for Arbovirus Discovery, Diagnosis, Genomics and Epidemiology (CADDE), a project focused on viral genomics and epidemiology for public health.
Those genomic data revealed the P.1 variant had acquired 17 new mutations. Ten were in the spike protein, which is the segment of the virus that binds onto human cells and the target of current COVID-19 vaccines. In fact, the new work reveals that three of these spike protein mutations make it easier for the P.1 spike to bind the human ACE2 receptor, which is SARS-CoV-2’s preferred entry point.
The first P.1 variant case was detected by genomic surveillance on December 6, 2020, after which it spread rapidly. Through further evolutionary analysis, the team estimates that P.1 must have emerged, undetected for a brief time, in mid-November 2020.
To understand better how the P.1 variant led to such an explosion of new COVID-19 cases, the researchers developed a mathematical model that integrated the genomic data with mortality data. The model suggests that P.1 may be 1.7 to 2.4 times more transmissible than earlier variants. They also estimate that a person previously infected with a variant other than P.1 will have only 54 percent to 79 percent protection against a subsequent infection with P.1.
The researchers also observed an increase in mortality following the emergence of the P.1 variant. However, it’s not yet clear if that’s an indication P.1 is inherently more deadly than earlier variants. It’s possible the increased mortality is related primarily to the extra stress on the healthcare system in Manaus from treating so many people with COVID-19.
These findings are yet another reminder of the importance of genomic surveillance and international data sharing for detecting and characterizing emerging SARS-CoV-2 variants quickly. It’s worth noting that at about the same time this variant was detected in Brazil, it also was reported in four individuals who had traveled to Brazil from Japan. The P.1 variant continues to spread rapidly across Brazil. It has also been detected in more than 37 countries , including the United States, where it now accounts for more than 1 percent of new cases .
No doubt you are wondering what this means for vaccines, such as the Pfizer and Moderna mRNA vaccines, that have been used to immunize (at least one dose) over 140 million people in the United States. Here the news is encouraging. Serum from individuals who received the Pfizer vaccine had titers of neutralizing antibodies that were only slightly reduced for P.1 compared to the original SARS-CoV-2 virus . Therefore, the vaccine is predicted to be highly protective. This is another example of a vaccine providing more protection than a natural infection.
The United States has made truly remarkable progress in combating COVID-19, but we must heed this lesson from Manaus: this terrible pandemic isn’t over just yet. While the P.1 variant remains at low levels here for now, the “U.K. variant” B.1.1.7 continues to spread rapidly and now is the most prevalent variant circulating in the U.S., accounting for 44 percent of new cases . Fortunately, the mRNA vaccines also work well against B.1.1.7.
We must continue to do absolutely everything possible, individually and collectively, to prevent these new SARS-CoV-2 variants from slowing or even canceling the progress made over the last year. We need to remain vigilant for just a while longer, while encouraging our friends, neighbors, and loved ones to get vaccinated.
Caption: Here I am visiting the Ziika Forest area of Uganda, where the Zika virus was first identified in 1947. Credit: National Institutes of Health
A couple of summers ago, the threat of mosquito-borne Zika virus disease in tropical areas of the Americas caused major concern, and altered the travel plans of many. The concern was driven by reports of Zika-infected women giving birth to babies with small heads and incompletely developed brains (microcephaly), as well as other serious birth defects. So, with another summer vacation season now upon us, you might wonder what’s become of Zika.
While pregnant women and couples planning on having kids should still take extra precautions  when travelling outside the country, the near-term risk of disease outbreaks has largely subsided because so many folks living in affected areas have already been exposed to the virus and developed protective immunity. But the Zika virus—first identified in the Ziika Forest in Uganda in 1947—has by no means been eliminated, making it crucial to learn more about how it spreads to avert future outbreaks. It’s very likely we have not heard the last of Zika in the Western hemisphere.
Recently, an international research team, partly funded by NIH, used genomic tools to trace the spread of the Zika virus. Genomic analysis can be used to build a “family tree” of viral isolates, and such analysis suggests that the first Zika cases in Central America were reported about a year after the virus had actually arrived and begun to spread.
The Zika virus, having circulated for decades in Africa and Asia before sparking a major outbreak in French Polynesia in 2013, slipped undetected across the Pacific Ocean into Brazil early in 2014, as established in previous studies. The new work reveals that by that summer, the bug had already hopped unnoticed to Honduras, spreading rapidly to other Central American nations and Mexico—likely by late 2014 and into 2015 .