May 8, 2020 / PIEN HUANG
This week, the question of mutation has been front and center in coverage of the coronavirus — from controversial claims about changes that make the virus more contagious to reassurances that any mutations are not yet consequential.
Here are some of the questions being raised — and what the specialists can (and can’t yet) say to answer them.
Is the coronavirus mutating?
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 as part of their life cycle,” says Ewan Harrison, scientific project manager for the COVID-19 Genomics UK Consortium. The coronavirus is no different.
When a virus infects a person, it enters their cells and makes copies of itself, which then circulate through the body or are transmitted — respiratory droplets is one method — to other humans.
Inevitably, viruses “make mistakes in their genomes” as they copy themselves, Harrison says. Those changes can accumulate and carry over to future copies of the virus. Mutations are akin to typos in text — most typos are nonevents, but some can change the meaning of a word or sentence. Likewise, many mutations will be dead ends with no effect on people who are infected. But some of these mutations in a virus may change how quickly it infects people and replicates, or what kind of damage it does to cells.