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COVID-19 virus is mutating – Could it lead to more severe, deadlier disease?

The novel coronavirus has been mutating, but at a very slow pace, according to researchers.

Like any other viruses, the novel coronavirus (SARS-CoV-2) will mutate too because mutation is part of a virus life cycle, say researchers.

Written by Longjam Dineshwori |Updated : June 18, 2020 7:36 PM IST

As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to wreak havoc across the world, killing more and more people every day, some predictions are doing the rounds that the virus will mutate into a more infectious and deadlier form. How far these predictions are true? Read on to know what experts say about virus mutation and if it matter in terms of vaccine development.

Like any other viruses, the new coronavirus (SARS-CoV-2) will mutate too because mutation is part of a virus life cycle, says researchers. But those changes aren't always a bad thing. In fact, mutations may weaken the virus. However, the changes are so minor that there's hardly any difference in the disease's transmission and mortality rates.

Researchers have identified SARS-CoV-2 as an RNA virus, which is a collection of genetic material packed inside a protein shell. Once an RNA virus comes in contact with a host cell, it can multiply and go on infecting other neighbouring cells. Flu and measles are also RNA viruses, and they are likelier to go through changes and mutations. The novel coronavirus is no exception, and it has been mutating, but at a very slow pace, according to US researchers.

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14 strains of SARS-CoV-2 identified

A study by researchers from the Scripps Research Institute in Florida suggested that the COVID-19 virus has mutated into more infectious variant. They said the mutation called "the D614G mutation" happened on the spike protein, the part of the virus that helps it bind to human cells. It is this mutation that makes it easier to infect our cells, the researchers explained.

Other studies have also supported the mutation theory. Earlier in March, researchers from the Los Alamos National Laboratory made a claim that they have detected the D614G mutation, and also suggested that it may be the cause of most infections reported in Europe and the United States. Total 14 strains of SARS-CoV-2 were identified and the study results were released to help scientists working on vaccines and treatments around the world.

New mutationsvsthe original strain

Scientists are observing the nature of the identified strains in laboratory settings, and they don't see the new dominant strain to be more infectious than the original virus strain. However, they are not sure yet how the variation will behave in the human body.

As per available evidence, the illness and hospitalization rates caused by the new mutation also seem to be similar with the original strain. For example, researchers see no difference between that virus mutations identified in Italy and New York, and the original strain that appeared in Wuhan, China, in late December, in terms of infections and fatalities.

Researchers at the Texas A&M University-Texarkana suggested that there's very rare chance that a virus will mutate to a more aggressive version. They also said that RNA viruses are more likely to mutate into a weaker version. But the original strain and its mutations may share similar characteristics and traits, they added.

If COVID-19 is mutating, it's good news as a vaccine will be more effective against variants with this mutation, the Scripps researchers noted. Once we have a COVID-19 vaccine, it will also most likely work against all the foreseeable mutations, like the way vaccines for measles, mumps, rubella and H1N1 do.

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