Stone Age Doc’s Pandemic Perspective #8
Is the new coronavirus mutating? Several laboratories around the world have reported that it is undergoing mutation. Like so many aspects of this pandemic, there is little consensus about how that will affect infectivity, lethality, response to antiviral drugs and the effectiveness of vaccines, of which there are more than 100 now in development.
Mutations are normal in all living things from the smallest viruses to the largest animals. Some mutations have minimal effects but others can be crippling or lethal, as seen in numerous human disease conditions such as cystic fibrosis. When a mutation occurs that makes a bacterial cell resistant to an antibiotic the descendants of that cell can spread throughout the human population, making treatment more challenging.
Virologists have already identified several mutations in the coronavirus that began to spread in late 2019 but these changes appear to be minor. The new variants do appear to have a greater tendency to spread within the population but at least for now there is no clear evidence that mutant strains are more lethal. That is a possibility however, considering that some countries, like Italy and Sweden, appear to have higher mortality among infected persons than other countries.
What is the likelihood that mutations will make a vaccine less effective? The reality is that we won‘t know the answer for some time, probably well into 2021. Vaccine development involves inoculating volunteers who are later deliberately exposed to the virus under laboratory conditions. Those results are only preliminary but they may be encouraging. It is only when at least several hundred naturally exposed vaccinees are evaluated will we have fairly predictive results.
In earlier blogs I have been optimistic that there will be a SARS-CoV-2 vaccine released to the public by the end of September. That opinion is based on two factors: the large number of candidate vaccines, now more than 100 as noted above, and the hope that any mutations will not be of the type that thwart the protective capability of a vaccine.
Only time will tell.