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Is the Coronavirus Mutating?

May 14, 2020

Researchers say they’ve identified a new strain of the coronavirus that is more dominant worldwide and appears to be more contagious. But these study results are not being shared to warn of another possible coronavirus outbreak in the United States, rather, it’s to let you know that the best infectious disease scientists are on the case. 

The new study, led by scientists at Los Alamos National Laboratory, found that the dominant strain of the coronavirus in the U.S. is actually one that first appeared in Europe in February, but has since become more widespread than the original strain causing COVID-19.

The study published on BioRxiv, raises questions about whether vaccines based on the first strain of COVID-19 will be effective against this new, more dominant strain. But this shouldn’t worry you — viruses always mutate. 

Viruses Always Mutate

Researchers say the coronavirus is making small changes to itself as they would expect it to — at a relatively predictable and steady rate of around one to two changes per month.

Viruses mutate naturally, but the direction in which they mutate varies. Their “goal” is to become more aggressive or transmittable, but sometimes the mutation is less contagious. In fact, influenza viruses are constantly changing. It’s why the seasonal flu vaccine changes every year.  RNA viruses, like the flu and measles, are more prone to changes and mutations compared with DNA viruses, such as herpes, smallpox and human papillomavirus (HPV).

The coronavirus mutation identified in the new report affects the now-infamous spikes on the exterior of the coronavirus, which allow it to enter human respiratory cells. The researchers wrote that they felt an “urgent need for an early warning” so that vaccines and drugs under development around the world will be effective against the mutated strain.

Staying Ahead Of The Strains Of The Virus

The good thing is that researchers are on the case, and we'll no doubt have more information soon. So, although an already dangerous and highly contagious virus mutating sounds incredibly nerve-wracking, don't stress too much. Viruses will mutate, and the coronavirus is no exception. These small, cumulative changes are useful to researchers, because they act as identification cards that help trace the pathway of the virus through groups of people over time. 

And it’s important to understand that a major challenge to defeating viruses is that a vaccine or drug might no longer be effective if the virus has mutated. Scientists are focusing their efforts on parts of the virus that are less likely to mutate. That will give them a better chance of developing drugs that will be effective in the long run.

What You Can Do

The World Health Organization put together a short, easy to remember list of things you should do to help keep the coronavirus from spreading. 

  • STAY home as much as you can
  • KEEP a safe distance
  • WASH hands often
  • COVER your cough
  • SICK? Call ahead

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention offers a more detailed list:

  • Clean your hands often, either with soap and water for 20 seconds or a hand sanitizer that contains at least 60% alcohol
  • Avoid close contact with people who are sick
  • Stay at home as much as possible
  • Put distance between yourself and other people (at least 6 feet)
  • Cover your mouth and nose with a cloth face cover when around others
  • Cover your cough or sneeze with a tissue, then throw the tissue in the trash
  • Clean and disinfect frequently touched objects and surfaces daily

By remaining vigilant, you will be able to significantly decrease your risk of contracting viruses. And remember that your vigilance is not only protecting you, but those around you, too. 

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