News of a mutation of SARS-CoV-2, better known as coronavirus, is currently setting the internet alight. Some virologists are anticipating this strain of COVID-19 to become the dominant form of the virus, and preliminary test results show that the new form of COVID-19 could alter the virus’s behavior.
This development poses a few interesting questions. Why and how the virus is mutating? How could this affect the production of an effective vaccine? Is this COVID-19 strain more lethal?
We’ve reviewed the research to bring you a summary of the COVID-19 mutation and what that means for us all.
Why is the Virus Mutating?
The first thing to note is that mutations won’t necessarily make COVID-19 deadlier. In fact, mutations are part of many virus’s life cycles and are often the reason they survive.
In this case, the genetic material of COVID-19 allows it to change and adapt as it moves from host to host, and this is when mutations commonly happen. This was evident when COVID-19 evolved from being primarily found in bats to using humans as a host. Research also shows that COVID-19 must have had other intermediary carriers before jumping to humans, although scientists aren’t certain which species are potential receptors.
There have actually been various mutations within this coronavirus, but the key mutation, known as “G” mutation, first started spiking in Europe in March. By the end of that month, 67% of COVID-19 samples showed signs of the mutation. The mutation was also detected in some parts of North America and Asia, and by mid-May, 78% of samples belonged to the “G” mutation.
What Changes Are We Seeing in the Virus?
The mutation that's most widely being discussed is happening in the coronavirus spike protein, and it’s suggested that this change is being caused by natural selection. In other words, the virus is reacting to better adapt to its current environment: us.
COVID-19’s capacity for genetic variation caused shifts in the initial genome of the virus, which led to changes in the composition of amino acids that act as receptors for humans. This mutation may be due to the introduction of the virus to different environments worldwide, but scientists are also suggesting that it’s simply down to chance.
What New Effects Could This Mutation Cause?
As previously mentioned, SARS-CoV-2 is not a human-born virus, but an infection that was transmitted between different hosts before penetrating our system. As such, humans have little immunological experience with COVID-19.
Although research is still in its early stages, the new protein in the virus could possibly lead to a higher immunological resistance to vaccines that are currently in development. The mutation might also pose a larger threat to human health.
Even though the human-to-human transmission may not lead to further mutation, there is an immunological risk related to this “G” form of COVID-19. This new strain could cause higher rates of infection and replication, with some research suggesting infection rates around eight times higher than the original strain of COVID-19. Other research points to the viral load of the “G” mutation being almost three times more significant. Nevertheless, there isn’t currently enough evidence of genetic variation within humans to draw a firm conclusion.
Coronavirus Mutation and Vaccines
Research into mutations within the coronavirus is still ongoing, and more studies are needed to gain a better understanding of the evolutionary patterns of COVID-19 on a global scale. Without this data, it’s difficult to predict and ensure the effectiveness of the vaccines that are currently undergoing clinical trials.
However, despite these limitations in sample size and demography, researchers are concluding that even if the new coronavirus strain shows different behavior, the preventative health measures across the world should remain the same. Whether or not the virus is spreading at a higher rate because of the “G” variant, the virus hasn’t completely changed its behavior, nor its entire composition.
Therefore, it’s thought that the production of vaccines is not greatly affected at this stage. This is positive news for the labs that have been working on vaccines and for those of us that are anxiously awaiting a cure for the 2020 pandemic.
What Does This Mean For the General Public?
According to experts, advice for the general public hasn’t changed. Social distancing and proper hygiene are still our best line of defense against COVID-19, and it’s important to wear a face mask whenever we’re in public places and social distancing isn’t possible.
It’s likely that the virus mutation is here to stay, but concerns over what it might mean for our health should be less of a focus than what we’re all doing right now. Our actions are still the most important thing because if we allow COVID-19 to continue spreading, it will.
Here’s how to stay safe as lockdowns lift and we transition to the new normal.