With the news headlines screaming every doomsday scenario possible, Americans are looking for hope anywhere they can find it. As it turns out, the behavior of the coronavirus itself may offer a spark of optimism for the future.
According to scientists, the coronavirus mutates slower than the common flu. This isn’t just scientific babble; it’s an important development that indicates a coronavirus vaccine may offer long-term protection against the virus rather than seasonal protection.
Here’s what scientists have learned so far about the mutations of COVID-19 and what those patterns mean for the future.
The Journey of Coronavirus From China to the U.S
It’s the job of molecular geneticists like Peter Thielen to track the behavior of diseases like COVID-19. Thielen, a geneticist at Johns Hopkins University, analyzed 1,000 samples of the novel coronavirus.
After comparing the strains that infected people in the Chinese city of Wuhan and the United States, Thielen found an average of four to 10 genetic differences between the strains. This isn’t unexpected: all viruses mutate over time with tiny errors that interrupt the virus’ genetic code and break it up into various strains.
What is unexpected, however, is that the coronavirus changes at a rate two to four times slower than the flu.
Why Is Coronavirus So Stable?
Coronavirus, formally called SARS-CoV-2, doesn’t mutate as much as other viruses that Thielen and fellow scientists have studied. Despite subtle changes to its genome, each strain of the virus appears nearly identical in every place it has infected humans.
This is dramatically different from the flu virus, which “mutates about once every 10 days across its genome,” according to Trevor Bedford, a scientist at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center. Though many of these mutations don’t have an overall effect on the virus, they cause enough significant change to undermine people’s immunity to the flu. This is why a new flu shot must be developed every single year. It also explains why the flu vaccine isn’t 100% effective.
What Does This Stability Mean for the Future of the Pandemic?
The unexpected stability of SARS-CoV-2 has important implications for global human health. It isn’t expected to endure frequent mutations, which means the flu will remain the same from season to season.
As a result, Theilen explains, “the mutation rate of the virus would suggest that the vaccine developed for SARS-CoV-2 would be a single vaccine, rather than a new vaccine every year like the flu vaccine.”
Doctors will be able to provide one single vaccine that potentially protects against the coronavirus for a lifetime, similar to vaccines for the chicken pox or measles. With dozens of coronavirus vaccines currently undergoing development, research, and clinical trials, Americans can expect access to this potentially life-saving vaccine within 12 to 18 months.