A: No need to panic, but scientists are keeping an eye on it.
RNA viruses like SARS-CoV-2 are always mutating in small ways– this is normal and expected. While scientists will be watching closely, so far there is no solid evidence that this new mutation has changed the virus in meaningful ways.
In a press conference this week, public health officials in Denmark reported a new SARS-CoV-2 strain associated with farmed minks, with 12 humans infected with the new mutation. Minks are believed to have contracted the virus from humans and then passed it back to them. Minks, along with their relative ferrets, are easily infected with the coronavirus.
The part of the news that raised some alarm bells was that the humans infected with the new mink-derived variant mounted weak antibody responses, leading a Danish public health official to suggest this new strain could interfere with vaccine efficacy.
Virologist Dr. Angela Rassmussen points out that weak antibody responses are seen in mild or asymptomatic COVID-19 cases, and no evidence was provided about the specific mutations and whether they occurred in the critical region of the SARS-CoV-2 spike protein that would affect antibody response.
Since there are many mutations in SARS-CoV-2 arising continuously, the fact that there is a new variant from minks is not problematic by itself. When the genetic sequence of the new variant is shared, scientists will be better able to assess the possible implications.
The WHO is monitoring the situation and has advised all countries to share their SARS-CoV-2 sequence data internationally to improve worldwide surveillance of new variants.
Beyond this single event, sustained transmission of SARS-CoV-2 among animal reservoirs like minks could be problematic in the long run due to the fact that evolutionary selection pressures can be different among species and lead to viruses diverging more substantially in ways that could have implications for transmission and severity in humans.
Besides increased precautions for animal farming, this suggests that efforts to lower community transmission are also important to reduce the probability of these cross-over events.
Stay Safe and Stay Sane!
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