Here’s a fact about viruses that is equal part annoying and interesting: they mutate.
Imagine viruses as a locked door that has somehow wedged itself between you and your health.
To undo the lock and thereby free your health, you need a key – a vaccine.
You consult the last person who was in your shoes to pry some intel about this elusive key.
He exhibited the exact same symptoms as you, he was diagnosed with the same disease, so he must be a reliable source of information.
Short answer: no. At least, not exactly.
When the locked door migrates, it appears to look the same. In reality, that sneaky little bastard had managed to evolve, even if by the tiniest of degrees, while on the way to a new host.
Nonetheless, the key fits, to your relief. But a pesky little voice in the back of your head won’t let you relax. It’s telling you: there’s no guarantee the key fits forever.
It’s only a matter of time before the lock becomes too different.
Yes, Virus Mutates. But No, Don’t Worry
Okay okay, I got too carried away telling the horror story that is virus mutation. I thought we were at a campfire.
Yes, viruses do mutate rapidly. When they invade your body, they get all cosy with your cells, gain their trusts, only to steal their RNA – sort of like a fingerprint ID that gives them permission to spread in your system.
But sometimes, there’s a copying mistake. These random blunders are termed mutations.
The overall structure of the virus remains intact, but the mutations contribute to a slight difference. They then become a “strain” of the original virus.
Strains are the reason people get flu shots yearly. They need to update their immunity, so to speak.
But vaccines still work well, as long as the strains are similar.
And that is why scientists are telling you to not overly concern yourself with the six identified strains of coronavirus, and the prospect of a vaccine.
Six Strains of SARS-CoV-2 Identified
The thing is, coronavirus didn’t just spring out of nowhere like Sun Wukong did from a rock.
In fact, “coronavirus” refers to a large family of viruses that have long roamed the Earth. Of the seven types that exist, two lead to Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS) and sudden acute respiratory syndrome (SARS), but most cause only mild respiratory infections in people.
That is until one possibly jumped ship from animals to humans – the SARS-CoV-2, otherwise known as Covid-19.
And the rest is history.
Anyway, Sun Tzu says: “Know thy enemy.”
So, researchers at the University of Bologna conducted the most extensive study ever carried out on the SARS-CoV-2 sequencing.
They combed through 48,635 samples of coronavirus genomes, isolated by scientists all over the world, and came to an encouraging conclusion.
Like all viruses, SARS-CoV-2 mutates. So far, it has spawned at least six evil minions.
How’s that encouraging?
SARS-CoV-2 Shows Little Variability
Well, the good news is, these apples don’t fall far from the tree. Despite its mutations, SARS-CoV-2 shows little variability.
There are approximately seven mutations per sample, which is less than half of influenza’s variability rate.
The first strain was the L strain, which debuted in Wuhan December last year. At the beginning of this year, it mutated into the S strain.
Only half a month later, it had turned into the V and G strains. The latter branched out into strains GR and GH at the end of February.
Apparently, the G strain and its variants won the Darwin game. With a 74% representation among the samples analysed, it is the most widespread strain at the moment.
They comprise of four mutations, two of which are capable of some voodoo that makes them more infectious.
Another fact about the virus: if by some happy coincidence a virus adopts a mutation that makes it better at infecting people, the strain becomes more common and less prone to change.
“The SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus is presumably already optimized to affect human beings, and this explains its low evolutionary change,” said Federico Giorgi, a researcher at Unibo and coordinator of the study.
In human speak, the virus won’t be going through dramatic plastic surgeries anytime soon.
Mutations Help Map the Virus Spread
Fun fact number three: the mutation of virus could help experts map its spread, as well as evaluate whether containment efforts are working.
For instance, strains G and GR are most frequently found across Europe and Italy.
On the other hand, the GH variety is almost non-existent in Italy. It appears to favour the hospitality of Frenchs and Germans.
In other words, they evolved separately and barely travelled – the containment worked.
Also, it helps emphasize the importance of not letting our guards down.
Case in point, while the L and V strains gradually disappear, the G, GH and GR strains landed in Asia in early March, nearly a month after their emergence in Europe.
Dr Sebastian Maurer-Stroh, deputy executive director of research at the Agency for Science, Technology and Research’s Bioinformatics Institute, suggested that the strain arrived in Singapore by hitching a ride on travellers.
The travel restrictions are really not put in place for fun.
Hopes for a Vaccine Are Not Lost
Anyhoo, the verdict is out. Thanks to the limited variability in the mutations, the strains won’t be presenting many challenges for vaccine developments.
In particular, the mutation that culminated in the G strain occurred on the “stalk” of a Spike protein – one of the witching wands responsible for the aforementioned voodoo.
Vaccines function by engaging with the “head” of the protein to prevent it from latching onto human cells.
It seems that hopes for an effective vaccine are not lost after all.
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