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The coronavirus is mutating. What does that mean for us?

Texas research finds coronavirus mutation makes virus more contagious, no more potent
Posted at 5:30 PM, Dec 21, 2020
and last updated 2020-12-21 17:32:09-05

(WXYZ) — The coronavirus has mutated in two countries - Britain and South Africa. And health officials say that the two new strains are much more infectious. Joining me now is our Chief Health Editor Dr. Partha Nandi. Doc, this sounds concerning…just how “more contagious” are these new strains?

Dr. Nandi:
First of all, let me say that I am not surprised to hear this. Because that’s exactly what viruses do – they mutate - because they want to survive. Now, as far as how contagious these new variants are, experts have estimated that the mutated strain in Britain is roughly 70% more transmissible. And it likely began circulating back in September. While the new strain in South Africa was found in up to 90% of the samples analyzed. And it may have begun circulating back in November.

Question: Are these new strains more dangerous?
It does not appear that these new variants are any more dangerous or deadly than what we’ve already been dealing with here in the US. Again, viruses mutate. And there’s already been thousands of modifications found in the coronavirus - all small and nothing significant to worry about – at least so far. And I’ve got to say that it’s not for certain that these new strains are in fact more contagious. Because the 70% more transmissible rate in Britain was based on modeling. Scientists have not confirmed this in a lab. So this mutated strain could be circulating more all because of a little luck and human behavior. It might all boil down to one or more superspreader events - where lots of folks gathered, got infected, and then passed it on to others. We really need more data to know for sure.

Question: It’s been reported that the British variant has roughly 20 mutations. Should we be concerned that the approved vaccines will not work against this mutated strain?
What viruses do is change their shapes, they like to change their surface proteins. And when that happens, it means that yes, the antibodies we’ve built up to fight those particular proteins no longer work. So how would this affect our vaccines? Well, experts expect that it’ll take years, not months, for the coronavirus to change enough that our vaccines will no longer work. Having said that, we’ll know more soon because scientists at the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research are taking this seriously and are looking into this. They’re running a computer analysis first and if there’s any concern, then laboratory studies will be next to see if the vaccine is effective or not. But at this moment, the scientific community overall feels that the vaccine should still work.

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