The P.1 Coronavirus Variant

January 25, 2021

A coronavirus variant (called P.1) that was first detected in Brazil was just confirmed by the Minnesota Department of Health as being the first documented case of the variant in the United States. (1) This variant has been particularly worrying scientists because of the mutations it has that let the virus spread faster and evade the immune system more effectively. This evolution could make it easier for COVID-19 survivors to contract the disease again and could potentially impede the effectiveness of vaccines. (2) While this is a daunting premonition, Marion Pepper, an immunologist at the University of Washington, wants us to remember that “even though everyone is obviously concerned about a virus evolving, your memory B cell responsiveness also evolves over time.” (3

So, let’s talk about these hero memory B cells how do they actually help fight our battles? The main function of the memory B cells is to retain and recall an infection (when presented with one that the body has experienced before) and react accordingly by producing corresponding antibodies. This sounds great, but what about when the body is presented with a new virus variant like the P.1 variant? The way these cells keep up with ever-evolving viruses is by randomly generating new antibodies that are similar to ones they’ve created in the past. (3) This essentially gives our immune system an unlimited defense arsenal. For more information on memory B cells, check out this great summary created at Arizona State University.

Blue and green colorized scanning electron micrograph of a human B cell.
Colorized scanning electron micrograph of a human B cell. Credit: NIAID, NIH