UC San Francisco team discovers how Alpha variant hides immune defenses

SAN DIEGO (KGTV) – The fast-spreading Alpha variant now accounts for two-thirds of COVID infections in the United States, and researchers at the University of California at San Francisco have made a discovery that helps explain why.

The variant, known by the scientific name B.1.1.7, has swept the world since it was first detected in the UK late last year.

According to a new study from UCSF, the variant carries a genetic mutation that acts like a viral “smoke grenade”, temporarily hiding the virus from the immune system for several hours.

The mutation allows the Alpha variant to take a step ahead of the body’s defenses, according to molecular biologist Dr. Nevan Krogan, co-author of the study.

“In a very sneaky way, the virus lowers the immune response, allowing the virus to grow further in our cells,” Krogan said. “This is a big reason, in our opinion, why we are getting increased transmissibility and ultimately increased mortality with this Alpha variant.”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimated Thursday that the Alpha variant was responsible for 66% of COVID infections in the United States from April 11 to 24. This represents a massive increase since December, when the CDC estimated that the variant was only 0.2%. American cases.

While much of the research on Alpha and other variants has focused on mutations in the spike protein, Dr. Krogan and colleagues have focused their efforts on the genes buried inside the shell. viral.

They discovered one, known as Orf9b, which produces large amounts of a protein once the virus enters a human cell. These viral proteins effectively obscure the body’s alarm system like a smokescreen, Dr. Krogan said.

Earlier versions of SARS-CoV-2 produced some of this protein, but the Alpha mutation allows it to generate up to 100 times more, the researchers found. This smokescreen effect lasted for about 12 hours in lab tests before cell defenses recovered.

Dr Krogan’s team performed preliminary research on the Beta and Delta variants, first identified in South Africa and India, respectively.

Both show signs of covering up the body’s alarm system, a protein called interferon that activates the immune system. But these variants don’t use the same gene as Alpha.

“There’s a suppressed immune system, so that’s another smoke bomb. What is it? ”Krogan said.

UCSF researchers have started work to identify the mechanism behind these variants, he said.

“The more we understand how the virus mutates to overcome our defense mechanisms and then manipulates us to increase transmissibility, the better off we will be in terms of finding new strategies to fight infection,” he said.

The good news is that our vaccines still work against all of these variants.

A new study from Public Health England has shown that two doses of the Pfizer vaccine were 93% effective against the Alpha variant and 88% against Delta.

But getting both doses is essential. After a single dose, the Pfizer vaccine was only 33% effective.

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