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Virus mutations: how worried should we be?

The word “mutate” has taken on a negative connotation it doesn’t really deserve. It basically means “change” or “alter” on the genetic level. Viruses all mutate by their very nature, and since the emergence of the particular strain of coronavirus we’re all concerned with during the COVID-19 pandemic, scientists have been expecting it to do just that. It has already, around 4,000 times, but, typically, not enough to make large differences in its effects. Of course, sometimes mutations are in the direction of more dangerous (or, like the current worry, more infectious); other times they can move the opposite direction, like many other coronaviruses such as influenza or colds, de-escalating until they become less threatening.

Many researchers don’t consider viruses lifeforms, in that they don’t have a cellular structure, like bacteria and higher forms of life. They are considered “genetic material.” However, in many ways their effects resemble closely those of lifeforms, as they do constantly appear to be trying to survive, multiply and evolve. They are parasites, however, in that they can’t multiply on their own. They only succeed in making many copies of themselves if they are inside another, higher organism, typically a plant or an animal. And although from the human point of view their effects are often negative, sometimes they’re positive. Researchers have only fairly recently realized that without viruses, our intestines might not be able to digest our food properly. The viruses, fungi and bacteria that have colonized us keep each other in balance. As discussed in a publication of the American Society for Microbiology, the presence of some viruses in our mucus membranes also prevents infections. Because such viruses (termed “bacteriophages” or “phages”) prey on bacteria, they have also been used to combat bacterial infections that have become resistant to antibiotics. Since such infections are increasing, viruses may seem more friendly to us as time goes on.

The coronavirus that makes us ill with COVID-19 is very definitely an unfriendly one, however, and from the human point of view, the mutation that has occurred most recently in the UK is very worrisome, with the newer, South African variant even more concerning. Both are said to be more infectious, and obviously, the last thing any health system needs, least of all Quebec’s, is more people getting sick. But it helps to understand what’s happening by looking at the situation from the virus’s point of view, using its resemblance to lifeforms as a metaphor. It needs a home in order to fulfil the same evolutionary impetus that makes all lifeforms reproduce. It started out as a fairly benign resident, living peaceably in, most probably, a bat, from which it jumped either directly, or through some other animal, to people, where it’s definitely not at home anymore and not so benign. In this new environment, a virus can go crazy, replicating so massively that the host, which has not evolved any resistance to it, will die quickly, as in the cases of deadly viruses like Marburg or Ebola. But that means it quickly runs out of hosts to live in, and its expansion is stopped. That’s why viruses are always mutating; different strains are trying out different methods of survival. If a milder strain keeps the host alive but can keep spreading out to new ones, that’s ideal for it, and is not a bad description of what we’re seeing in the UK and South Africa variants.

At first scientists didn’t expect these mutations to greatly affect the operation of the vaccines developed against earlier strains of the current coronavirus. As they research especially the South African variant, more concerns are being voiced. The 4,000 mutations the virus has undergone so far were not altering it in terms of infectiousness or severity. However, with the UK variant, infectiousness has ramped up; there are a staggering number of cases there now, one in 50 people testing positive! Both variant mutations are “increasing the fitness of the virus, its ability to propagate” (Belluz and Irfan, Vox, Jan. 7, 2021). While the vaccine may still be effective on both the UK and South African strains, the worry is that with so many more people becoming hosts, the virus will be able to mutate at an increased rate, so there will be statistically more people hospitalized with serious disease, and, worse yet, more likelihood of a mutation that could make COVID-19 less susceptible to vaccines, or more deadly. One mutation (E484K), already in the South African variant, seems to have “antibody evasion capabilities,” according to the Vox article, which would affect vaccine efficiency. That makes it even more important to roll them out faster, so that fewer hosts are available to help the virus mutate.

Our human evolutionary strategy, of surviving to have kids, grandchildren and great-grandchildren, will be seriously affected if we don’t pay close attention to the expansionist strategies of this virus. At this point in time, we have a pretty likely scenario to help us survive, if we don’t abet COVID-19 by gathering closely together and helping the virus spread and mutate more — before we can all get that vaccine.

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