Does the Novel Coronavirus Mutate?

By Shlomo Maital

     Writing in today’s New York Times, Nathaniel Lash and Tala Schlossberg try to answer the key question, does the novel coronavirus mutate? If so, how and when?

   Here is why it is important for us to know this.   The pandemic crisis will end only when we have a vaccine, produced in billions of doses. The vaccine will work by stimulating the body to produce antibodies that neutralize the virus by binding to it in a very specific way. If the virus can mutate to defeat the vaccine, then the vaccine will not stop working. The key is the “spike protein” – the protein the virus makes that penetrates the cell walls and lets the virus invade (and kill) it. Those are the spikes you see in the graphic illustrations of corona. Vaccines can defeat the spike.

   Here is what the authors of the article have found:

   “Among the thousands of samples of the long strand of RNA that makes up the coronavirus, 11 mutations have become fairly common. But as far as we know, it’s the same virus infecting people all over the world, meaning that only one “strain” of the virus exists, said Peter Thielen, a molecular biologist with the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory.   Only one of those common mutations affects the “spike protein,” which enables the virus to infect cells in the throat and lungs. Efforts to produce antibodies that block the spike protein are central to many efforts to develop a vaccine. Since the spike protein has changed little so far, some scientists believe that’s a sign that it can’t alter itself very much and remain infectious.”

   So – we have a small piece of good news. The measles vaccine, for instance, was developed in 1950. And it is still effective. Measles hasn’t mutated in a manner that neutralizes the vaccine. Evolution is powerful – but apparently it cannot surmount EVERY obstacle. So hopefully the same will apply to the COVID-19 vaccine – and we will bid this insidious deadly enemy good-bye, with an effective vaccine… until the next one.