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Novel Coronavirus (COVID-19): Will It Mutate?

March 26, 2020
Medically reviewed by Susan Kerrigan, MD and Marianne Madsen

When people hear the word “mutation”–especially in the same context as “virus”–they might automatically think of a zombie apocalypse or a similar nightmare scenario that will lead to the downfall of humanity. This is mostly due to the countless movies, books, and video games that portray a mutation as something deadly. 

 

But there’s no reason to panic. All viruses have the capability to mutate, and COVID-19 is no exception. However, when most viruses mutate, it doesn’t necessarily mean that they evolve into something more powerful or infectious. For example, influenza viruses usually mutate every year through a process called antigenic drift. This is why scientists create a new vaccine for every flu season. So although the flu virus does undergo mutations, it doesn’t become more dangerous every year.

Recently, scientists have also detected small mutations in COVID-19. A study done in March of this year published in the journal National Science Review analyzed genomes taken from patients infected with COVID-19 in Wuhan, China. The researchers were able to identify two separate strains of the coronavirus: An “L” type and an “S” type. They found the “L” type–which they consider more aggressive–in 70% of their virus samples. Although they noted that cases of patients infected with the “L” strain decreased after January while the “S” strain became more prevalent, this is likely due to quarantines which stopped the “L” strain from spreading.

 

So if COVID-19 already mutated into two separate strains, one of them more aggressive than the other, isn’t this worrying? Not according to Nathan Grubaugh, Assistant Professor of Epidemiology at the Yale School of Medicine, who recently published a paper in Nature on the topic.

He reassures us that we shouldn’t worry about the COVID-19 mutation, in part due to it being an insignificant one. All viruses undergo mutations, he writes, and claims that the virus will evolve into a deadly “super killer” are completely baseless. Grubaugh says that mutations can also make a virus less virulent, or deadly, which would be favorable during this current outbreak of COVID-19.

So will COVID-19 mutate even further to become less infectious, or will it suddenly turn into something uncontrollable, with a high fatality rate, launching us all into an apocalypse? Grubaugh asks the same question in his paper, and looks to the 2002-2003 SARS epidemic for answers. He says that “mutations in the spike (S) protein were discovered during the early stages of the outbreak and eventually dominated the epidemic,” suggesting that perhaps the virus adapted to humans and made the outbreak worse. But he considers such claims to be unsubstantiated, and that it’s unlikely that COVID-19 will mutate into something more deadly.

 

Now that your fears of mutations have been calmed, try to remain in good spirits, maintain your social distance as much as possible, and hope for things to return to normal in the coming months.

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