Almost two years after the emergence of the SARS-Cov2 virus in Wuhan Province in China, the coronavirus that causes COVID-19, since then, many variants have been identified and are under investigation. These new variants raise questions: So, what is a mutation exactly? Is it dangerous? And what does a mutant strain mean?
In this explainer, fact-checkers at ZAMI Reports attempt to present expert views on why the variants keep getting contagious, including medical information behind them to better equip you moving forward.
The more people who get infected with a virus, the more chances the virus has to evolve through mutation, said Health Experts.
What is a Mutation?
A mutation is essentially a random change in the genetic code of the virus. The genetic code is essentially a blueprint for the virus that tells itself how to build new virus particles after it infects our bodies. When there’s a mutation in the blueprint the structure of the virus and the particles on the virus change.
These changes can be tiny or large depending on the type of mutation. Sometimes this can lead to really significant changes in how easily the virus can infect our body. But sometimes it can also weaken the virus too. It does depend on the kind of mutation we are talking about because, by their nature, mutations are unpredictable.
A specialist in internal medicine and gastroenterology, Jorge E. Rodriguez, M.D. said viruses mutate all the time as they replicate in infected people. He said some mutations aren’t very important. But if the mutations are significant, they can lead to more contagious or more dangerous new variants of a virus.
“Think of a virus as a necklace full of different-coloured beads,” Dr Rodriguez said.
“And in position No. 1, you need a red bead. Position No. 2 is a green bead. That’s the genetic code – that sequence of bead colours,” he hinted.
“When a virus replicates, it is supposed to make a replica of those bead colours. But every once in a while, maybe a green bead gets into where a red bead is supposed to be.”
When mutations give the virus an advantage — such as the ability to replicate faster, or to hide from the immune system – that version will outcompete others.
Among the few mutations, we have had are South Africa’s B117 variant, the fast-spreading B117 “British” variant of Covid-19. Scientists say alongside this change, B117 has accumulated 16 other mutations on its spike protein. Another Brazilian variant, designated P2, has been found in two people who caught Covid-19 a couple of months apart. The British variant E484K mutation is proving to be important in another concerning variant that is now spreading around the world.
A week ago, scientists announced a new variant New “Delta Plus” OffShoot Called AY.4.2 in the United Kingdom.
Is a Mutation Dangerous?
When we are talking about something like a mutation it can be easy to think that mutations are dangerous. After all, most news reports seem to make it sound like it is. Mutations are random changes. Being so, they can be randomly good or randomly bad for the virus and us. Sometimes these mutations can end up being harmful to the virus. For example, it might accidentally make a virus particle that makes it harder to attach to human cells. This sort of mutation would be bad for a virus. Ultimately, these viruses die out because they won’t be able to survive.
Some, though, go in the opposite direction. Some COVID-19 strains have developed viral particles that can bind to human cells even better and avoid attacks from the human immune system. These mutations turn out to be helpful to the virus and allow it to survive and create more copies of itself. This is how a new strain is born. How a new strain behaves is hard to predict, but it isn’t always necessarily the case that it will be worse. Consider for a moment that we have a new flu strain nearly every year. But the symptoms of the flu are generally the same every year. A mutant strain does not automatically mean you are going to get a different kind of disease.
When are people with coronavirus most contagious?
“People can be contagious without symptoms. And – a little bit strange in this case — people tend to be the most contagious before they develop symptoms if they’re going to develop symptoms,” CNN Chief Medical Correspondent Dr Sanjay Gupta said.
“They call that the pre-symptomatic period. So, people tend to have more viruses at that point seemingly in their nose, in their mouth. This is even before they get sick. And they can be shedding that virus into the environment.”
Some people infected with coronavirus never get symptoms. But it’s easy for these asymptomatic carriers to infect others, said Anne Rimoin, an epidemiology professor at UCLA’s School of Public Health.
“When you speak, sometimes you’ll spit a little bit,” she said. “You’ll rub your nose. You’ll touch your mouth. You’ll rub your eyes. And then you’ll touch other surfaces, and then you will be a spreading virus if you are infected and shedding asymptomatically.”
That’s why health officials suggest people wear face masks while in public and when it’s difficult to stay 6 feet away from others.
Now how do we get rid of mutations?
An expert in viruses at South Africa’s National Institute for Communicable Diseases Penny Moore said the only way to get rid of variants is to lower the number of infections. That’s a big reason why doctors urge people to get vaccinated as soon as they can. Those who don’t get vaccinated aren’t just risking their health — they’re also jeopardizing the health of others, infectious disease specialists say.
“Unvaccinated people are potential variant factories,” a professor in the Division of Infectious Diseases at Vanderbilt University Medical Center Dr William Schaffner said.
“The more unvaccinated people there are, the more opportunities for the virus to multiply.”
This story was supported by Journalists for Human Rights under the Mobilizing Media to Fighting Covid-19.
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