With COVID-19 dominating the world, the fact that the virus mutates has brought fear to many. But this is a natural phenomenon.
“All viruses experience evolutionary change as they move through populations of infected individuals,” said Silas Johnson, associate professor of biology.
According to National Geographic, one COVID-19 mutation surfaces every 11 days.
“The rate of genetic change for coronaviruses is relatively slow compared to other RNA viruses,” Johnson said. “The rate of change for coronaviruses is about half as fast as influenza and about one-quarter the rate of HIV.”
“For SARS-CoV‑2, three major variants have captured recent news attention,” Johnson said. “These three variants were first isolated in the U.K. (B.1.1.7), South Africa (B.1.351), and Brazil (P.1).”
“This small number likely vastly underestimates the true number of variants currently circulating around the globe,” Johnson said.
The U.K. variant allowed the virus to move from hosts quicker, spreading through communities much faster. According to a National Geographic article, the variant is 50% more transmissible than other forms of the virus.
Regarding the U.K. variant, Johnson said that the mutations found may impact transmissibility, but that more work needs to be done to confirm this.
According to National Geographic, mutations may occur through chronically ill patients. Scientific American reported that after a U.K. patient was treated with convalescent plasma — a treatment derived from COVID-19 antibodies — the virus rapidly evolved and mutated, eventually killing the patient.
Although these mutations sound alarming, Johnson said there is no current evidence that they are any more dangerous than the original virus.
“At this point in time, there is no evidence to suggest that any of these newer variants are more lethal than the original variant,” Johnson said.
There may be complications with how the different mutations respond to the coronavirus vaccine.
“There is some evidence to suggest that the mRNA vaccines are just as effective against the B.1.1.7 variant compared to the original variant,” Johnson said. “However, they may have slightly reduced efficacy against the B.1.351 variant. More work needs to be performed to confirm vaccine effectiveness against all variants.”
A previous version of the article was misleadingly titled “COVID-19 mutations represent no threat.” The headline of this piece has been updated to more precisely reflect the article’s content.