Recent news over the discovery of a new variant of COVID-19 in Danish mink has sparked concern across the globe that the race towards finding a vaccine could be hampered if the new variants turn out to be more deadly and resistant to antibodies. But are these concerns valid or are people simply getting caught up in media hyperbole?
The word mutation brings up all kinds of scary and apocalyptic connotations and just feels inherently negative, like it’s something we should all fear. From a scientific perspective, virus mutations do certainly have the ability to become more infectious, more deadly and more resistant to treatments, but in many cases the mutations we see in many viruses provide little impact on their performance within the human body and can even make them weaker.
Coronavirus is similar to influenza, polio and measles in that it is an ‘RNA’ virus. This means that it cannot replicate alone and requires the functions of healthy cells to do so. It is coated with a protective protein shell and once inside the body, it attaches to healthy cells where it is able to make copies of itself. Research suggests that RNA viruses are able to mutate around 100 times faster than DNA viruses, which also require healthy cells to replicate. DNA viruses include herpesviruses and smallpox viruses.
Mutations are a completely natural part of the lifecycle of any virus and should be expected, so it is no surprise that there are now predicted to be over half a dozen variations of COVID-19 across the world. The important part of this is understanding the speed at which the virus mutations are happening, and this is key when it comes to managing the fear factor.
Scientists analyzing the various strains have revealed that the newer mutations are still incredibly similar to the original strain first identified in Wuhan in 2019. Alongside this patients who have been infected by the newer mutations have not shown to be at any increased risk of hospitalizations or deaths. This suggests that most of the genetic code of the virus has remained the same and therefore is good news with regards to the effectiveness of a vaccine.
Due to the length of time it takes to research, develop, test and release a vaccine, most are based on the original strains of the particular virus they are designed to protect against. The current winter flu vaccine for example was developed based on analyzing the genetic makeup of the 2009 H1N1 virus strain. Naturally there have been many mutations of the flu virus since then, but the slow speed of mutations is still close enough to the original strain for the vaccine to still have the desired protective response in the body some 12 years later.
As the race towards finding a successful COVID-19 vaccine looks like it may be reaching a crucial crossroads, the emergence of the new virus variant in minks has raised the question of whether this could hamper efforts of the current vaccine trials and potentially render them ineffective. Whilst this is theoretically possible, scientific experts believe that the mutations are not severe enough to cause widespread issues. Whilst new variants may lead to localized outbreaks, they certainly won’t have the same global devastating impact that COVID-19 has had this first time around.
Scientists are confident that the current vaccines in development, if proved successful, will provide sufficient protection from not only the current virus mutations, but a multitude of future COVID-19 mutations too. Just as the flu-vaccine remains effective against the ‘vast majority’ of flu viruses, so will the COVID-19 vaccine. Naturally there will be some strains which the vaccine cannot protect against, but the numbers will be much lower.
2020 has certainly proved a remarkable year for science and has shown just what can be achieved when the world’s greatest medical and scientific minds come together to find a solution for the biggest global health crisis we have faced in over 100 years. Whilst there is still much more work to be done, the signs are that we are indeed making progress in better understanding and treating the symptoms associated with COVID-19, so that more people are surviving infection than were at the start of the outbreak. With recent announcements that both the Pfizer vaccine and the Moderna vaccine are showing signs of being 95% effective, we remain hopeful that in 2021 we will be able to tackle this virus head on and begin to rebuild our communities and our economy.
The internet is both a blessing and curse as it provides us with a wealth of information, but not all of this is accurate or indeed helpful. In writing this article, I have been mindful of the sources I reference and the language I use when explaining the findings thus far. Amidst the uncertainty, we all have a responsibility to help each other to remain informed and realistic about the developments in COVID-19 without sensationalizing the topic or sparking fear or panic.