DURBAN – Scientists say it is still too early to know whether any of the coronavirus mutations are helping the virus thrive. Recently, a team led by scientists at Los Alamos National Laboratory released a paper that purportedly described “the emergence of a more transmissible form” of the new coronavirus, SARS-CoV-2.
The paper which has not yet been formally published or reviewed by other scientists claimed that “a now-dominant strain of the coronavirus could be more contagious than the original.” The paper has become the subject of heated scientific discussions for not offering concrete evidence.
“We’re getting the mutations that we’re kind of expecting here. If these mutations were there, there’d be a little bit more worry about antibody-based approaches and vaccine approaches because the shifts might make it harder for antibodies to recognize the virus. But the mutations are not directly on the receptor-binding domain, so researchers aren’t too worried about those specific changes,” says virologist, Vineet Menachery.
As scientists learn more about the genetic makeup of coronaviruses, mutations help them to use the information to trace an individual’s infection to nearby clusters and ultimately back to its origin. That can be useful for tracking outbreaks and spotting newly imported infections.
According to Ewan Harrison, who is the scientific project manager for the Covid-19 Genomics UK Consortium, viruses mutate naturally as part of their life cycle and the coronavirus is no different.
“Inevitably, viruses make mistakes in their genomes as they copy themselves. 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,” he said.
“The term ‘mutation’ often has a negative connotation, but the action it carries helps scientists study where a pathogen came from and how it’s been spreading, ultimately teaching experts how to contain it,” said Virologist, Nathan Grubaugh.
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