Answers to Questions About Coronavirus Mutations

The emergence of potentially faster-spreading variants of the coronavirus is increasing concern about the virus’s path just as the vaccines that many hope will bring an end to the pandemic are being distributed.

The variant causing the most alarm has been found primarily in southeast England, according to a report from the European Center for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC), which has prompted new lockdown restrictions within the United Kingdom and bans on travel from the U.K. to some other countries. Recently, scattered cases involving this variant had already been detected in several European countries as well as in Canada and the U.S..

Public health laboratories are actively looking for additional cases in several states, and results from a national laboratory looking at specimens from all over the country are expected within a few days,

Anthony Fauci, MD, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, told PBS Newshour that he suspected the variant was here already but added that “it doesn’t seem at all to have any impact on the virulence or what we call the deadliness of the virus. It doesn’t make people sicker. And it doesn’t seem to have any impact on the protective nature of the vaccines that we’re currently using.”

The U.S. now requires that people arriving here from the United Kingdom by plane test negative by a test no more than 72 hours before departure.

Infectious disease experts note that viruses always mutate. This virus, like many others, constantly acquires and loses genetic traits as it spreads. Thus additional novel strains are likely to arise within the populace, ones that have yet to be identified.

Here’s what we know about the variants causing concern now.

Why Do Viruses Mutate?

Viruses like COVID-19 make imperfect copies of themselves as they spread from person to person or from an animal to a person, leading to constant mutations and new variants. These mutations often don’t provide any advantage to the virus. But sometimes, a mutation can make a virus more transmissible or change the severity of the disease the virus causes. Extending to all life on this planet, this is consistent with Darwin’s theory of evolution.

How Has the Coronavirus Mutated?

The COVID-19 virus first emerged in China and continued to mutate as it spread around the globe. A variant that was likely more contagious emerged in Europe. That variant’s infectiousness helped it spread rapidly throughout Europe and the U.S., where it became one of the most dominant strains. The variant under investigation in the U.K. has a large number of mutations, including changes to the spike protein that the coronavirus uses when infecting cells. After comparing the number of coronavirus cases in the U.K. with cases predicted by computer models, scientists there think this variant could be as much as 70 percent more infectious than existing variants.

But people traveling for the holidays could also account for some of the higher case figures. Scientists need more data before they’ll know if this variant is more infectious and to what degree.

There’s no data thus far that indicates this variant of the virus causes people to become sicker.

Where Are Current Mutations Spreading?

Cases of the variant that’s under investigation in the U.K. are primarily in regions of London, and wider southeast England, according to the ECDC. But this version has also been identified in Wales, Denmark, Belgium, The Netherlands, Australia, Canada, and elsewhere, indicating that it has spread internationally as well. The first known case in the U.S. was identified on Tuesday, in Colorado, in someone with no travel history.

Other countries, including the U.K., do more routine virus sequencing than the U.S., which makes it difficult to know how widespread the variant may be here. With this new variant now in the U.S., the public health officials are already ramping up their sequencing efforts, with the goal of sequencing 3,000 viruses soon. That data should help provide a clearer picture of how widespread the variant is in the U.S.

If this variant does prove to be more contagious, people should expect it to spread further.

While the large number of mutations in this variant have raised questions about how it emerged, it’s not the only virus variant that scientists are investigating. An evolutionarily distant variant with some similar mutations is spreading rapidly in South Africa, which could indicate that mutations like this aren’t uncommon.

How Might Mutations Affect the Vaccine?

Vaccines teach our immune system to respond to a virus by recognizing some key sign of it. Mutations can postentially alter the virus in such a way to reduce a vaccine’s effectiveness. The first vaccines that have been authorized in the U.S. for COVID-19, made by Moderna and a partnership of Pfizer and BioNTech, target a particular protein—the spike protein—that the coronavirus uses to infect people. So mutations of that protein could potentially make a vaccine less effective. But even if the mutations in current variants of the virus have some impact on the vaccines’ efficacy, it’s likely that the vaccines could still be highly effective. Nevertheless, we may eventually need new vaccines that target other parts of the COVID-19 virus.

What Should You Do?

The same advice about stopping the spread of the virus is even more crucial if this mutation spreads faster. The appropriate action is caution, follow the existing procedures for mask-wearing, social distancing, and minimizing the number of potential lines of exposure. The more the coronavirus spreads, the more it mutates. Unfortunately, we are needlessly prolonging the duration and the severity of this pandemic by not following these simple maneuvers.

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