Medical experts tracking the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) have noted that the disease is mutating, with eight strains plaguing 199 countries and territories across the world.
Viral mutations are not uncommon and Trevor Bedford, whose website, NextStrain.org, is following the virus’s genome from samples throughout the world explained, that fortunately, the mutations are not more deadly than their mother strain.
While welcomed news, the research is informative and has shown thus far that the new strains emerging are only slightly tweaked, with no variations in lethality, experts said.
Researchers are dissecting the genomes of coronavirus and discovering the strains that have emerged since the virus first jumped from animals to humans in a Hunan, China wildlife market late last year.
The project “shows how the virus is migrating and splitting into similar but new subtypes” as a USA Today article explained.
Speaking with National Public Radio (NPR) Harvard University infectious disease epidemiologist Marc Lipsitch said, “In the literal sense of ‘is it changing genetically,’ the answer is absolutely yes.”
“What is in question is whether there’s been any change that’s important to the course of disease or the transmissibility or other things that we as humans care about,” Lipsitch argued, adding, “[T]here is no credible evidence of a change in the biology of the virus either for better or for worse.”
Bedford, referencing the progress of his research, wrote on Twitter that mutations are completely normal in the lifespan of a virus.
“The observed rate of mutation (about two mutations per month) is completely normal for a virus. Flu and the common cold have similar mutation rates. Even a bit faster for flu,” Bedford tweeted.
Mutations, according to Bedford are what hamper efforts to create an effective vaccine or cure against outbreaks, and at the coronavirus’s current trajectory, medicine is much closer to creating a vaccine before it mutates and becomes immune.
While the genomes retrieved so far are providing reassuring, real-time information about how the virus can be stopped and whether social distancing is working — indications are that it is — they do not provide more than a sketch, the experts said.
Observations aside, scientists agree there is much more to be discovered, however, COVID-19’s microscopic changes are helping them map the pathogen’s pathway through the human population.
As at 9:40 am Eastern Standard Time (EST), a staggering 741,907 cases have been confirmed globally, with 549,968 patients currently infected.