This post will attempt to answer the following questions:
- Is the coronavirus mutating?
- What does that mean?
- Should I be worried about this?
- What can I do if the virus is mutating?
As if things aren’t scary enough with the illness, deaths, fear of invisible virus particles, and economic meltdown the news media has done what they do best and added to our collective anxiety. May 5th there was a report published in the Los Angeles Times that a “a now-dominant strain of the coronavirus could be more contagious than [the] original.”. This was based on the online posting of a pre-print of a research study that describing a new “strain” of the novel coronavirus. This new “strain”, the team wrote, “began spreading in Europe in early February.” Whenever it appeared in a new place, including the U.S., it rapidly rose to dominance. Its success, the team suggested, is likely due to a single mutation, which is now “of urgent concern.”
This information for obvious reasons (and without pun intended) went viral. So many of us are already gripped with anxiety related to COVID-19 – anxiety caused by a combination of the seriousness of the disease and terrible uncertainty our current reality brings. There is great uncertainty among experts, all the more so for the rest of us. Throw in the fear that the virus could be getting more scary and the coronavirus perfect storm becomes even more perfect. Fortunately, it is highly likely that the conclusions are overblown.
Even if we assume that the research was well done and will eventually be published after peer-review – and there is no reason to believe this is not true – it is important to understand what the results of their study means in the grander scheme. What does it mean that this coronavirus is mutating? Is that unusual? Is that bad? It certainly sounds bad. Now is the time to hit the brakes before you head down the road to anxietyville. As reported in The Atlantic, virologists are not convinced that multiple strains of the virus exist at all. Now you may be confused. The research mentioned in the L.A. Times seems to clearly suggest that there are new strains but he virologists quoted in The Atlanta say there are not new strains. How is this possible?
Fortunately, it is highly likely that the conclusions are overblown
Here’s the explanation. When viruses replicate, the process is imperfect and mutations enter the genes of the virus. This is true of all viruses and while this sounds scary these mutations are very rarely significant. As the virus mutates it develops different branches on the family tree with different lineages. These different lineages are not different strains. To become a new strain the mutations must impact how contagious the virus is or how sick it makes you. This is why I was careful to put the term “strain” from the L.A. Times article in quotes.
Some viruses mutate more readily than others. Influenza is an example of a virus that mutates frequently and rapidly. These mutations change the surface proteins in a way that makes the virus new to your immune system making it harder to clear. When this happens it becomes more contagious and more virulent. When this happens the virus is now a new strain. This is why we need an updated flu shot every year. Having a different viral genome without changing how the virus behaves makes it a new lineage but not a news train. This is only important to a virologist but not to you or me. Fortunately, coronaviruses as a class are known to be more stable. They change at a tenth of the rate of influenza. SARS-CoV-2 is not an exception.
The mutation seen in the study reported in the L.A. Times changes one of the many molecules that make up the spike protein we have all seen on pictures of SARS-CoV-2. The mutation might make this lineage of coronavirus more transmissible explaining why it is the dominant strain that has spread so rapidly. It is more likely that the mutation has no significant effect on the virulence or contagiousness of the virus. The reason the viruses with this mutation are more common is a result of random chance. This lineage of viruses was likely lucky enough (for it, not for us) to be in the right people—those who traveled from China to Italy before the Italians locked down. They then spread it across Europe faster than an espresso raises your heart rate. It then landed in the U.S like a pizza pie landing in a to-go box and spread like a chianti stain on a white fabric table cloth in Carmine’s in Times Square (analogy officially overdone) . Indeed, that’s the pattern we see: This mutation first appeared just before the coronavirus moved into Europe, and almost all the viruses of this lineage around today are descendants of that initial one. China’s intense social restrictions likely stamped out many other lineages within its borders, and stopped them from spreading further.
I do not believe nor am I qualified to say that the data from the research team is bad or wrong. I do believe strongly that the conclusions drawn from this information likely are based on the opinion of those who are qualified to say so. I also feel strongly that the L.A. Times was irresponsible in reporting the data as it did. Much more data needs to be collected before it can be concluded that the different lineage is more contagious or deadly enough to qualify as a new strain. The odds are against it and any claims otherwise should be taken with a grain of salt for the next several months, if not longer. Most of the virology labs are working (as they should) on treatment and prevention of disease not on classification so we may never know for sure
Even if the strain was more contagious or deadly it would not change what you do as an individual.
Even if the new coronavirus lineage was more contagious or deadly and qualifies a s a new strain it would not change what you do as an individual or what we do as a society. Remember, it doesn’t matter how contagious or deadly a virus is if you never get exposed to it. You know what to do to prevent exposure. Continue taking all recommended precautions, all the ones I’m sure your sick of hearing about by now. The important thing is that reading or watching news stories that increase your anxiety about mutating strains or any other scary sounding development in the pandemic do nothing to decrease your risk of getting infected – they only increase your anxiety and misery. I think we’ve all had enough anxiety and misery from this virus to last a lifetime.