Japanese News Report Antiviral Drug-resistant Coronavirus

The novel coronavirus has continued to mutate as it circulates through the population. As of January 2024, the dominant coronavirus variant was the JN.1 strain, accounting for some 85% of infections in the United States.

JN.1 is a descendant of the omicron strain, which proved to be “less likely to cause serious illness” than earlier variants. Nonetheless, vaccine status and a person’s health at the time of infection are the major factors in COVID’s progression as an illness.

This issue, the health of the infected person, has recently become a concern for public health authorities in Japan. Earlier this month, Japanese news reported concerning developments following infections of coronavirus among immunocompromised patients.

Among some patients with the lymphoma disease and other immune system-specific conditions, it had become impossible to eradicate the virus using antiviral drugs (e.g. Pfizer’s paxlovid). Kansai Medical University recorded hospitalised patients who tested positive for over 100 consecutive days following infection.

As the Yomiuri newspaper reported, “In immunocompromised people, the virus cannot be eradicated, and there are cases where drug-resistant viruses are increasing again.” The concern then is, of course, that the virus variant could spread outward from these hospitals.

Spike protein mutations pose problems for vaccine and antiviral drug responses.

The issue of COVID mutations in hospital patients with long-term illness has been raised before. A Singaporean research team documented “highly mutated SARS-CoV-2 variants” evolving in the bodies of immunocompromised patients.

Researchers at UCL (London) made similar findings in 2022 of viral evolution in infected patients who had chronic illness. But the resistance to antiviral drugs seems not to have been a finding in this earlier research.

The researchers observed that mutations to the spike protein, which current COVID vaccines target, have the potential to reduce or erase the vaccines’ efficacy.

The currently dominant variants suggest a trend towards non-fatal, highly-infectious characteristics. But these reports of treatment-resistant viruses provide another reason to continue doing what we can to stop the spread, especially in vulnerable spaces like hospitals.

Article image courtesy of @yory and thumbnail image courtesy of @jezar both via Unsplash.

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