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Thursday, April 23, 2020
Coronavirus May Mutate Faster Than Previously Thought
A new study shows that the COVID-19 virus mutated into at least 33 different strains. The study by Chinese researchers, which has not yet been peer-reviewed, found 19 mutations that were not previously known.
Newsweek reported that the researchers found “significant variation” in how the different mutations of the virus attack cells, called the cytopathic effect (CPE), and the quantity of the virus in the bodily fluids of an infected person, termed the viral load. Different mutations of the virus lead to different levels of severity in Coronavirus patients.
“The observed mutations in our study, and possibly in the viral isolates collected around the world, can significantly impact the pathogenicity of SARS-CoV-2,” the researchers wrote.
Several weeks ago, Resurgent reported that researchers had found only minimal differences between the few mutations of COVID-19 that were then known. The new information about mutations may mean that it is more difficult to create an effective Coronavirus vaccine.
“Depending on the nature of the mutations, some mutations would indeed weaken the vaccine effect if they are not taken into considerations,” said Chao Jiang of Zhejiang University, the author of the study. “Since vaccines have different strategies that target different things in the viruses, it’s difficult to make a blanket statement. However, there are numerous vaccine developments going on at the same time, so we remain optimistic.”
As explained by Axios, Coronaviruses, which are coded in RNA, mutate faster than DNA viruses. Unlike other RNA viruses, however, Coronaviruses have the ability to proofread as they duplicate to minimize errors in the copying process. As a result, although the number of mutations may be high as the virus infects millions of people around the world, the mutations don’t result in changes that are as large as those in other viruses, such as influenza, which requires a different vaccine every year.
A researcher not involved in the study, Yong Gia of Australia’s Murdoch University, said that the mutations led to very different levels of virulence but did not reflect big changes in the makeup of the virus.
“The possibility of a single or several point mutations making vaccines futile is generally low,” Gia said, but noted, “As the virus continues spreading and infecting a large population of people, the number of mutations would still accumulate to a high level, despite the low mutation rate.”
The study did not explain how the mutations affected the level of virulence. Such details will likely the subject of future research.
The question of mutations is important because it affects the virus’s ability to reinfect people who have recovered as well as the ability of researchers to create a vaccine. Already, there is some evidence of secondary infections in patients in both South Korea and China. At this point, no one knows for sure if Coronairus patients can catch the disease more than once, like the flu, or in one infection confers immunity as with diseases like chickenpox.
At this point, we don’t know how easy it will be to develop a Coronavirus vaccine. There are vaccines for other RNA viruses, such as the flu. There are even vaccines for some Coronaviruses that affect animals. However, more than 30 years of research have not developed an HIV vaccine.
A Houston researcher at Texas Children’s Hospital says that his team came close to developing a vaccine for SARS in 2016 could not get funding for human trials. Dr. Pete Hotez told NBC News that he believes his SARS vaccine could have provided an invaluable head start in fighting the COVID-19 pandemic, but, as of early March, the experimental vaccine was still in a freezer in Texas where it had been for the past four years.
“We could have had this ready to go and been testing the vaccine’s efficacy at the start of this new outbreak in China,” Hotez said.
Even if the drugs are successful, it will likely be more than a year before a vaccine is ready. Scientific American explains that safety standards dictate that vaccines be vigorously tested because they will be injected into large numbers of healthy people, hundreds of millions in the case of a COVID vaccine. Clinical trials might require tens of thousands of participants to ensure that a new vaccine is both effective and safe.
The new revelations underscore just how much we don’t know about COVID-19. The crash course to develop a Coronavirus vaccine may result in the most rapidly developed vaccine in history or it may yet fail completely. With the prospect of a second and possibly more lethal wave of infections in the fall, a successful vaccine can’t come too soon but it seems likely that the world will have to endure at least one more wave of outbreaks. The possibility that surviving COVID-19 might not confer immunity due to mutations makes the discovery of a vaccine all the more important.
Most of us can do little more to help the vaccine effort than to offer our prayers and moral support. We can, however, do our part of slow the spread of the virus. In addition to fewer deaths, fewer infections mean that COVID-19 has fewer chances to mutate. That could both help researchers close in on a vaccine and prevent the creation of an even more lethal version of the virus.