The term mutate has taken on a life of its own thanks to sci-fi movies and thriller films that dramatize the science behind virus mutations.
As a study in Nature MIcrobiology explained as the coronavirus was spreading from China to Italy, “Our media streams and scientific communications flooded with trepidation and misrepresentation of mutations surrounding the outbreak of a novel coronavirus, SARS-CoV-2, exemplify this attitude.”
The truth is that mutations are less deadly and exciting than the entertainment industry would have us believe. Mutations are actually an average occurrence for all RNA viruses like SARS-CoV-2. By understanding the mutation process, scientists can better predict the trajectory of a virus in a pandemic situation like the one we face today.
RNA Viruses Are More Prone to Changes
Viruses are sorted into two categories based on the type of genetic material they contain. Diseases like the measles, polio, and influenza are RNA viruses, while conditions such as herpes, chickenpox, and smallpox are DNA viruses.
In most cases, RNA viruses undergo changes and mutations more frequently than DNA viruses. Those changes could make the virus stronger, weaker, or barely different at all. In fact, the changes triggered by mutations are often so subtle that they’re virtually imperceptible and don’t cause any difference in the virus’s transmission and fatality rates.
How Fast Will Coronavirus Mutate?
In the midst of the current COVID-19 pandemic, everybody wants to understand more about the coronavirus and its potential future behavior.
Once an RNA Virus like coronavirus makes contact with its host, such as an elderly person in a nursing home or a frontline health worker, it begins to make new copies of itself that infect other cells in the body.
However, researchers have identified that SARS-CoV-2 mutates at a very slow pace compared to other viruses. The mutations that do occur result in copies similar to the original virus.
As Dr. Benjamin Neuman, the head of the biology department at Texas A&M University explained, “Nearly all mutations will make some part of the virus work less well than before. The most common thing is for mutations to appear and die out again quickly.”
What Does This Mean For a Vaccine?
Vaccines are developed from a strain of the virus being targeted. In the case of the coronavirus pandemic, pharmaceutical labs are using a known strain of COVID-19 to create a vaccination that will help the body build a strong immunity to the virus and prevent infection.
Many people are concerned that any future mutations to SARS-CoV-2 will render the new vaccines useless, but experts agree that’s highly unlikely.
“The virus is still so similar now to the initial sequence that there isn’t really much reason to think the differences will matter in terms of vaccine,” Neuman said. This makes COVID-19 very different from the standard flu, which mutates fast and erratically from one year to the next. Experts predict that the coronavirus vaccines currently under development may prove effective for many years to come.
The bottom line? Mutations aren’t a mysterious, deadly force. Instead, they can inform our understanding of emerging outbreaks and help us respond quickly and efficiently.