A: Yes, many variants of SARS-CoV-2 exist which is normal virus behavior. The changes noted to date warrant continued study, though should not cause alarm.
Scientists study virus mutations to:
1) understand the family tree of virus strains
2) examine changes that could alter transmission and/or disease severity
3) examine changes that could alter the effectiveness of vaccines or treatments.
Viruses use host cells (humans in this case) to make copies of themselves. In the process of making copies, it is quite common for errors to occur. Think spelling or autocorrect type errors. Errors are detectable when the genome of SARS-CoV-2 is sequenced, which scientists at the Covid-19 Genomics Consortium (COG-UK) and many other groups are conducting regularly.
Many mutations are meaningless. Some mutations are important. Like a text message, one spelling error generally doesn’t disrupt the communication but sometimes the autocorrect occurs in just the right place to cause trouble. Mutations that take place in key locations of the code can allow the virus to more easily enter cells potentially increasing transmission of the virus across hosts or causing more severe disease.
A particular strain of SARS-CoV-2 in the UK is getting some attention (VUI-202012/01). This particular variant has a mutation in the spike protein of the virus (an N501 mutation for you super cool nerds). It’s not the first variant to have this type of mutation. Did this particular variant have a lucky break and find its way to more hosts OR does the variant possess specific strengths to spread more efficiently? To date, it’s not clear why this variant is more common than others with continued study expected.
Vaccinations are designed with mutations in mind. A change in one location of the virus, even on the spike protein, is unlikely to disrupt the success of the vaccine. Collections of mutations over time could render a vaccine less effective which is why continued study of mutations in SARS-CoV-2 is important.
So, no need to panic about mutant viruses at the moment. You can expect continued attention on this variant and others in the future.
Those Nerdy Girls
Virus mutations content from prior Dear Pandemic posts:
Photo Credit: nextstrain.org