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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.