COVID-19 Will Mutate — What That Means for a Vaccine

 

  • Every virus mutates; it’s part of the virus life cycle. Those shifts and changes aren’t always a big deal.
  • The new coronavirus is an RNA virus: a collection of genetic material packed inside a protein shell.
  • RNA viruses, like the flu and measles, are more prone to changes and mutations compared with DNA viruses, such as herpes, smallpox, and human papillomavirus (HPV).

As the new coronavirus SARS-CoV-2 makes its way around the world, there’s been an uptick in predictions that the virus will mutate into something deadlier and become an even scarier threat to humanity.

“Mutation. The word naturally conjures fears of unexpected and freakish changes,” researchers wrote in a reportTrusted Source published in Nature Microbiology in late February. “Ill-informed discussions of mutations thrive during virus outbreaks,” they continued, which is exactly what we’re seeing with SARS-CoV-2.

But mutations aren’t necessarily a bad thing. Every virus mutates; it’s part of the virus life cycle. Those shifts and changes aren’t always a big deal.

In some cases, those mutations may actually lead to a weaker virus. Usually, though, the changes are so slight that there’s no noticeable difference in the disease’s transmission and fatality rates.

The new coronavirus is mutating, but very slowly

The new coronavirus is an RNA virus: a collection of genetic material packed inside a protein shell.

Once an RNA virus makes contact with a host, it starts to make new copies of itself that can go on to infect other cells.

RNA viruses, like the flu and measles, are more prone to changes and mutations compared with DNA viruses, such as herpes, smallpox, and human papillomavirus (HPV).

“In the world of RNA viruses, change is the norm. We expect RNA viruses to change frequently. That’s just their nature,” said Dr. Mark Schleiss, a pediatric infectious disease specialist and investigator with the Institute for Molecular Virology at the University of Minnesota.

SARS-CoV-2 is no exception, and over the past few months it has been mutating.

But the virus has mutated at a very slow pace. And when it does mutate, the new copies aren’t far off from the original virus.

“The sequences of the original isolates from China are very close to those in viruses circulating in the U.S. and the rest of the world,” said Dr. John Rose, a senior research scientist in the department of pathology at Yale Medicine who’s helping develop a COVID-19 vaccine.

More contagious?

Early research from scientists at Los Alamos National Laboratory shows that SARS-CoV-2 has mutated into a new form that may be more contagious.

The new strain is responsible for the vast majority of infections reported around the world since mid-March, according to the new study published in the preprint research website BioRxiv Thursday.

In total, the researchers identified 14 strains of COVID-19 and released their findings to help those working on vaccines and treatments.

That being said, the new dominant strain identified does seem to be more infectious in laboratory settings.

But scientists are now trying to understand how the variation behaves in the body — which may be very different from lab settings. Additionally, the study is in preprint, which means it hasn’t yet been fully peer-reviewed.

It’s also unclear whether the new mutation infects and sickens people differently. At this time, the illness and hospitalization rates caused by the new variation seems to be similar.

More data is needed to understand the implications of the new mutations, like whether reinfections after recovery are possible, and whether the changes could affect the vaccines and treatments in development.