Q&A with Hull virologist Dr Cheryl Walter on COVID-19 Indian variant

Dr Cheryl Walter is a University of Hull Virologist with more than 15 years of experience working on a variety of viruses and virus-host systems.

She graduated with a PhD in Microbiology from Rhodes University in South Africa in 2008, and continued her research at the University of Leeds where she first worked on bunyavirus gene regulation and later on hepatitis C virus-host interactions.

Dr Walter has continued her research at the University of Hull with a continued interest in virus-host interactions, using both model bunyaviruses and emerging flaviviruses systems.

She has extensive teaching experience both at undergraduate and postgraduate levels of study.

Dr Cheryl Walter
  • Can you explain why there is so much concern over the India variant?

The Indian variant B.1.617.2 is actually one of a few variants that are circulating in India. Concerningly, this variant is now the dominant variant in circulation in India and has the potential to become the dominant variant here in the UK too. 

It’s also concerning because it is likely to be more transmissible between people. We have yet to get clinical evidence to prove it causes more severe COVID-19, but the good news is that early data suggests the vaccines we are using will be effective in preventing serious COVID-19 disease by this variant.

  • Why does Covid-19 mutate and is there any way of stopping it mutating?

All viruses mutate – this means they change their genetic code ever so slightly and they do so thousands of times faster than other living organisms.

The best way of slowing down the rate of mutation and the rise of variants is to break the chain of transmission. Viruses can only mutate when they’ve infected a living organism and so by slowing down the number of COVID-19 cases, we limit the ability of the virus to keep on changing. 

  • Do the current vaccines protect us from the Indian variant?

Preliminary evidence suggests yes. We will be able to get more data in the UK based on the number of people who remain protected from serious COVID-19 as a result of infection with the circulating Indian variant.

  • Could we quickly provide boosters or new jabs if the current vaccines prove less effective?

These are relatively quick to design and we have sophisticated vaccines that can be changed with less effort than before, but time is still needed to trial how effective these modified vaccines are and then roll them out according to regional demand around the world, as required.

Discussions are in place with Pfizer and Astra Zeneca about creating variants to tackle some variants, and Moderna is awaiting approval to start trialling one they have already created. 

  • If it arrives in Hull what is the best approach? More surge testing or would we bring forward the vaccine programme as has happened in Bolton, etc.? 

Both! The immediate priority is surge testing and isolating individuals who have caught the variant. Vaccination is more a mid- to long-term strategy.

It takes at least three weeks, more like four, before you even start making good antibody levels after your first vaccination. 

We have seen how quickly the infection rate can double so the immediate priority is to identify and ring fence clusters of infection and prevent further transmission in the community.

  • Do you envisage further variants to develop?

Unfortunately, yes. Wherever we have outbreaks that are poorly controlled around the world, the virus has an opportunity to mutate in fast forward. I do think we will see more variants until more of the world is vaccinated – another good reason to share surplus vaccine supplies with other countries.

Mutations and variants will always appear, but we can slow this down by vaccination and social distancing/quarantining measures. Mutations in viruses take place in order for that virus to be the fittest of the bunch.

Sometimes the same genetic variant will appear in geographically separated countries at the same time, because that just happens to be a successful genetic change. It’s a bit of pot luck, but successful mutations can become dominant, as we have seen a few times already.

  • How optimistic, from a scientific viewpoint, that we can lift restrictions on June 21 as planned?

With the preliminary evidence that vaccines are effective against the Indian variant, I am cautiously optimistic!

The more people who are regularly tested and take up the vaccine, the better protected we are as a population. Speedy traffic light rating of high-risk countries by governments around the world will also help to reduce importation of dangerous variants too.

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