The novel coronavirus does not appear to be mutating in a dangerous way, according to experts studying the virus, the World Health Organization (WHO) said.
In a press briefing on Wednesday, the WHO said scientists around the world have identified more than 40,000 full genome sequences of the virus, but fortunately, these mutations are not stronger new strains.
“Scientists are looking to see: are there changes in the virus? And as it is a coronavirus — it is an RNA virus — there are normal changes in this virus that one would expect over time,” WHO infectious disease epidemiologist Maria Van Kerkhove said at the press conference.
“None of these changes so far indicate that the virus itself is changing in terms of its ability to transmit or to cause more severe disease.”
Still, the novel coronavirus is dangerous and a serious health threat, Van Kerkhove stressed. She added that the more time the virus circulates, it can continue to have devastating effects — especially if COVID-19 prevention measures are not practised by citizens.
As countries slowly ease on lockdown measures, people need to be hyper-aware of their behaviour, she said.
“We must remain strong and vigilant (and) have governments fully engaged — and people fully engaged — as these lockdowns are lifted,” Van Kerkhove said.
Dr. Mike Ryan, executive director of WHO’s health emergencies program, explained that all viruses evolve and mutation is normal. He said RNA viruses — like the novel coronavirus — evolve quickly as they want to survive.
“Very occasionally, a mutation can lead to a virus becoming more effective in transmission, or more virulent, or less effective in transmission,” Ryan said.
“In general, in human infection, viruses tend to evolve to live with humans rather than do more damage. That would be a general process of viral adaptation because it’s not in the virus’s interest to do too much damage in the host; it wants to survive.”
But just because the novel coronavirus does not seem to be mutating to cause more harm at the moment, Ryan said scientists will continue to track it.
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“This is already a dangerous virus,” he said. “We’ve been saying this consistently for months now.”
As of June 4, there have been more than 93,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Canada and more than 7,500 deaths. Over 51,000 people have since recovered, more than 50 per cent of the remaining confirmed cases.
How a virus mutates is important not only from a health risk perspective but from a vaccine standpoint, too.
Colin Furness, an infection control epidemiologist and assistant professor at the University of Toronto, said very specific mutations that happen around the coating or the outside of the virus can really change the virus’s behaviour, including how contagious it is.
“The reason why mutations are important is that both vaccines and your immune system recognize a virus by its outside, its coat,” he explained.
“So if the virus mutates in a way that changes the coat, it may well be that the immune system stops recognizing it — which we have with the flu every year — and it can also mean vaccines will fail to be effective for exactly the same reason.”
The fact that scientists, so far, say the novel coronavirus does not seem to be mutating in a more dangerous way is a good thing, as “from a vaccine standpoint and a lifelong immunity standpoint, less mutation is an advantage,” Furness said.
But that doesn’t mean the virus isn’t dangerous, and there is still much unknown.
“Scientists are saying so far it has not mutated much, but I think that trying to predict mutation is a pretty dangerous game,” Furness said.
What’s vital, he said, is to understand what part of the virus is mutating and what part does not appear to be mutating. That will be key to developing a vaccine.
“That’s the big question,” he said.
Questions about COVID-19? Here are some things you need to know:
Symptoms can include fever, cough and difficulty breathing — very similar to a cold or flu. Some people can develop a more severe illness. People most at risk of this include older adults and people with severe chronic medical conditions like heart, lung or kidney disease. If you develop symptoms, contact public health authorities.
To prevent the virus from spreading, experts recommend frequent handwashing and coughing into your sleeve. They also recommend minimizing contact with others, staying home as much as possible and maintaining a distance of two metres from other people if you go out. In situations where you can’t keep a safe distance from others, public health officials recommend the use of a non-medical face mask or covering to prevent spreading the respiratory droplets that can carry the virus.
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