Does it matter that the Covid-19 virus is mutating?

  • Scientists have been studying the biology of SARS-CoV-2 in an effort to control the pandemic
  • Key to this was a finding regarding the D614G mutation earlier this year
  • According to scientists, these gene mutations can be both harmful and beneficial

Tracking SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes Covid-19, is key to understanding how it spreads and mutates over time.

According to ScienceMag, the virus accumulates about two changes per month in its genome (the genetic material). For this reason, sequencing its genome can help researchers follow how it spreads.

Genome sequencing, as this Health24 article explains, is the process of “figuring out” the exact order of DNA nucleotides in a virus (similar to letters in a sentence, but without punctuation and capitals).

But does this constant evolving, as it spreads from person to person, mean that it could have implications for the course of the pandemic? A recent article in Nature draws on the work of virologists who have been studying the virus since the start of the pandemic. Here’s what the current research suggests.

SARS-CoV-2 changing more slowly than HIV

In the article, virologist David Montefiori explains that SARS-CoV-2 is changing much more slowly than the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) as it spreads. In the case of HIV, mutations are very common as the virus replicates extremely rapidly.

Along with Bette Korber, an expert in HIV evolution, Montefiori, who directs an Aids-vaccine research laboratory at Duke University in Durham, studied thousands of coronavirus genetic sequences for mutations that possibly changed the virus’s properties over time, and as it spread across the globe.

What they found was a mutation, named the D614G mutation, appearing several times over in samples from people with Covid-19. The mutation, explains Nature, was initially spotted in China and Germany in late January. 

Health24 reported on a particular study at the time on these mutations, and noted that according to the researchers it enabled the virus to spread more rapidly between people, but that the mutation did not appear to affect people's ability to fight the virus.

According to the Washington Post, of the approximately 50 000 genomes of SARS-CoV-2 that researchers  worldwide have uploaded to a shared database, about 70% carry the mutation.

Scientists were on the fence. Some believed the mutation could infect cells more easily and that while it might not make people sicker, it could make them more infectious – while others believed that the finding was potentially good news for vaccine development, in that it could target the virus more easily. Currently, nothing is definitive.

Studying mutations: Why does it matter?

With thousands of people still being infected with the virus and many dying from Covid-19 every day, scientists constantly have to be on the lookout for gene mutations as they are significant for controlling the pandemic.

According to Nature, many mutations of the virus will not bear any implications on its ability to spread or cause disease, but the most worrying mutations could cause the virus to evade immune systems, as well as vaccines and antibody therapies. Scientists will, therefore, have to continue to work hard in order to stay ahead of the virus’s evolution.

In a more local context, a paper published in The Pan African Medical Journal (PAMJ) in June noted that while Africa is contributing to the genome data, it needs to up its game and build more capacity for genome sequencing. 

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