The race against the virus that causes COVID-19 has taken a new turn: Mutations are rapidly popping up, and the longer it takes to, the more likely it is that a variant can elude current tests, treatments, and vaccines could emerge.
On Friday, theurged more effort to detect new variants. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said a new version first identified in the may become dominant in the U.S. by March. Although it doesn’t , it will lead to more hospitalizations and deaths because it spreads much more quickly, said the CDC, warning of “a new phase of exponential growth.”
“We’re taking it very seriously,” Dr., the U.S. government’s top , said Sunday on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”
“We need to do everything we can now … to get transmission as low as possible,” said Harvard University’s Dr. Michael Mina. “The best way to prevent mutant strains from emerging is to slow transmission.”
So far,, but there are signs that some of the new mutations may undermine tests for the virus and reduce the effectiveness of antibody drugs as treatments.
“We’re in a race against time” because the virus “may stumble upon a mutation” that makes it more dangerous, said Dr. Pardis Sabeti, an evolutionary biologist at the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard.
Younger people may be less willing to, shun crowds, and take other steps to avoid infection because the current strain doesn’t seem to make them very sick, but “in one mutational change, it might,” she warned. Sabeti documented a change in the Ebola that worsened it.
MUTATIONS ON THE RISE
It’s normal for viruses to acquire small changes or mutations in their genetic alphabet as they reproduce. Ones that help the virus flourish to give it a competitive advantage and thus crowd out other versions.
In March, just a couple of months after the coronavirus was discovered in China, a mutation, making it more likely to spread. It soon became the dominant version in the world.
After months of relative calm, “we’ve started to see some striking evolution” of the virus, biologist Trevor Bedford of the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle wrote on Twitter. “The fact that we’ve observed three since September suggests that there are likely more to come.”
One was first identified in the United Kingdom and quickly became dominant in parts of England. It has now been reported in at least 30 countries,States.
Soon afterward,, and the primary mutation in the version identified in Britain turned up on a different version “that’s been circulating in Ohio … at least as far back as September,” said Dr. Dan Jones, a molecular pathologist at Ohio who announced that finding last week.
“The important finding here is that this is unlikely to be travel-related” and instead may reflect the virus acquiring similar mutations independently as more infections occur, Jones said.
That also suggests thatmight be ineffective, Mina said. He said that because the has so many cases, “we can breed our variants that are just as bad or worse” as those in other countries.
TREATMENT, VACCINE, AND REINFECTION RISKS
Some lab tests suggest theidentified in South Africa and Brazil may be less susceptible to antibody drugs or convalescent plasma, antibody-rich blood from COVID-19 survivors — both of which help people fight off the virus.
Government scientists are “actively looking” into that possibility, Dr. Janet Woodcock of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration told reporters Thursday. She said that the government is encouraging the development of multi-antibody treatments rather than single-antibody drugs to have more ways to target theone proves ineffective.
Many scientists say current vaccines induce broad enough immune responses to remain effective. Enough genetic change eventually mayformula, but “it’s probably going to be on the order of years if we use the vaccine well rather than months,” Dr. Andrew Pavia of the said Thursday on a webcast hosted by the Infectious Diseases Society of America.
also worry that if the virus changes enough, people might get COVID-19 again. Reinfection is rare, but Brazil already in someone with a new variant who had been sickened with a previous version several months earlier.
WHAT TO DO
“We’re seeing a lot of variants, viral diversity because there’s a lot of viruses out there,” and reducing new infections is the best way to curb it, said Dr. Adam Lauring, an infectious diseases expert at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.
Loyce Pace, who heads the nonprofit GlobalCOVID-19 advisory board, said the same precautions scientists have been advising “still work, and they still matter.”
“We still want people to be masking up,” she said Thursday on a webcast hosted by the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of.