With the novel COVID-19 spreading and affecting numerous cities across the world in a matter of months, we see new scientific research about it every day. There’ve been talks of the virus mutating into numerous distinct strains and rendering a proper vaccine impossible; however, according to scientists, that might not be the case at all.
On March 25, Trevor Bedford, an evolutionary biologist at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, shed a light to the object on a Twitter thread.
A thread on #SARSCoV2 mutations and what they might mean for the #COVID19 vaccination and immunity, in which I predict it will take the virus a few years to mutate enough to significantly hinder a vaccine. 1/12— Trevor Bedford (@trvrb) March 25, 2020
Finally some (possible) good news.
We know that viruses mutate naturally as a part of their life cycle. However, when they make mistakes in their genomes during the copying, those changes accumulate and carry over to the future copies of the virus.
In order to track these changes, researchers of the COVID-19 Genomics UK Consortium project are tracing the virus as it jumps from people to people. Thankfully, according to the researchers, the virus seems relatively stable. Ewan Harrison, who is the project manager, states that the virus goes through about two mutations a month while spreading. This is about one-third to one-half the rate of the seasonal flu.
Moreover, these genetic changes that were observed so far don't appear to be changing the function of the virus. It is true that we will see occasional mutations to the spike protein, which is the protein targeted by immunity, which will possibly hinder the possible vaccines; however, it will have a slow rate of change. This is good news for treatments and future vaccines.
This means that after a person gains immunity against COVID-19 by recovering from it or by getting a future vaccine, they will most likely be protected against its other strains for years, rather than months, according to researchers.