As if the pandemic couldn’t get any worse, a recent study published in Science confirms that a new strain of the coronavirus has mutated and its mutation has enabled it to spread more quickly around the world. The good news, however, is that the mutation may also make the virus more susceptible to a vaccine.
The new strain of the coronavirus, known as D614G, is different from the original strain that came from China at the beginning of the pandemic. Research from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and the University of Wisconsin-Madison show that the newest strain replicates at a faster rate and is more transmissible. Studies have also shown that even though this particular strain spreads faster, it is not associated with a more severe disease and is more sensitive to antibodies used in vaccines.
The study of this recent mutation was published around the middle of November, and provides some of the first real, concrete findings about how the virus is steadily evolving. In total, researchers have identified 14 strains of SARS-CoV-2 and are currently working towards releasing a vaccine and treatment that can help. In the meantime, what does the mutated virus mean for us? Even though it sounds like something out of a science fiction movie, mutations aren’t always a bad thing.
How Did the Virus Mutate?
The coronavirus, as with any other living organism, goes through normal life cycle mutations to shift, change and adapt in order to survive. Did you know that the coronavirus has been around for centuries? Named after the crown-like spikes on their surface, the coronavirus has four main sub-groupings and there are seven viruses that can infect people. SARS-CoV-2 is the novel coronavirus that causes the coronavirus disease 2019, also known as COVID-19.
The D614G strain of the coronavirus is a mutation of the SARS-CoV-2 virus. The mutation occurred on the spike protein, the part of the virus that helps it bind and fuse to our cells, and makes it easier for it to infect us. However, this also creates a pathway to the center of the virus’s core, which makes it more vulnerable.
During a trial study of the new mutation, researchers used hamsters to test how fast the mutation spreads in close proximity. Hamsters were placed into cages next to each other with a divider set in place so they couldn’t touch but air could pass between them. The hamsters were given the D614G mutation and the older strain of the virus, and then tested to see how the virus spread from species to species. With the mutant virus, the researchers found that by day two, six out of the eight hamsters had the virus. By day four, all were infected. With the older virus, there was no transmission by day two; however, all were infected by day four.
The researchers concluded that the D614G virus spread more easily, which could explain why it’s been the dominant virus spread from human to human. They also concluded that even though the mutant virus spread more easily, it didn’t necessarily mean the illness was worse.
With SARS-CoV-2 being a new human pathogen, its evolution in humans is hard to predict. And as the virus continues to spread, new variants will also make their way into the pandemic and spread among people. So, is there a way to protect us from the mutated virus? Should we be more afraid now that there’s concrete evidence the virus is changing and adapting?
Dealing With the Virus
Unfortunately, the coronavirus will continue to mutate just as other viruses and other living things have adapted to their surroundings to survive. It’s inevitable that the coronavirus will be around for a lot longer, spreading from person to person and making its way across the world. This also means that scientists and researchers will continue to watch and study these mutations to work towards a vaccine and treatment for the future.
In the meantime, however, we have to focus on the immediate future and how we can do our part to help slow the spread of the virus. With the holiday season in full swing, you might want to rethink your plans of gathering together with family or friends. As of the middle of November, the CDC has reported more than 11 million cases and nearly 250,000 deaths within the United States from the coronavirus.
During the holidays, the CDC recommends to follow these guidelines:
- If you are considering traveling for the holidays, you should check if the cases are high or increasing in your community or at your destination, and ask yourself if someone in your household or someone you would be visiting is at increased risk for getting sick. You should also check to see if your home or destination has requirements or restrictions for traveling, as well as consider how you are getting there, such as traveling on an airplane or by bus or train and if staying 6 feet away would be difficult.
- If you decide that you are going to travel, you should check travel restrictions before you go, get your flu shot, wear a mask in public settings, stay 6 feet apart, wash your hands often, avoid touching your mask, eyes, nose, and mouth, bring extra supplies and know when to delay your travel.
- You can help make your holidays safer by wearing a mask with two or more layers to help protect yourself and others from the virus. Be sure to wear your mask properly by securing it over your nose and mouth, and make sure that it fits snugly against the sides of your face.
- If you do get together with family or friends, stay at least 6 feet away from others who do not live with you. People without symptoms may be able to spread COVID-19 or the flu.
- Remember to wash your hands as often as possible with soap and water for at least 20 seconds. Keep hand sanitizer with you and use it when you are unable to wash your hands. You should also check to make sure the sanitizer you are using has at least 60% alcohol.
- If you do choose to attend a gathering, try bringing your own food, drinks, plates, cups and utensils, as well as wear a mask and safely store your mask while eating and drinking.
If you choose to stay home among your immediate household this holiday season, there are still ways that you can have a fun holiday. Thankfully, technology has allowed us to be with each other even when we’re miles apart. You can video chat family while you eat and talk about the recipes you’ve made. There’s also plenty of things to watch on television, such as a national parade, watching sports or playing a favorite, feel-good movie.
Like it or not, the coronavirus is not going away any time soon. In fact, it continues to mutate and change all the time. As the virus continues to spread, try your best to keep people that are most vulnerable to the virus out of harm's way by wearing a mask and doing your best to keep contact with people down to a minimum. Although big family gatherings around the holidays may be tempting, it may be worth it to keep everyone safe and healthy.