How Do Viruses Mutate and What Are Its Implications?​

January 29, 2021

How Do Viruses Mutate and What Are Its Implications?

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Though the United States is only hearing about the new coronavirus strain as it hit five states (Florida, New York, California, Colorado, and Georgia), it has been around for months now. First discovered in the United Kingdom at around September 2020, the new virus was found to be 70% more transmissible in lab models; and when subject to studies, was found to be 56% more contagious. Despite these fears, several authority figures have noted that while the virus spreads around at a significantly higher rate; it is not more deadly than the typical coronavirus that has taken the world by a storm.

While establishments could be commended due to an increased adoption of health-related regulations such as OSHA and HIPAA compliance protocols and CDC-recommended practices, the era of mitigating COVID-19 is starting to approach an era of solutions. As vaccine rollout has recently begun, research and bioengineering are starting to tackle the root of the infection. This is by exploring the genetic code of coronavirus – evidenced by the fact that several vaccines are on advanced stages of development.

Even then, mutations are fairly common amongst viruses – which eventually proves to be a challenge when it comes to producing long-lasting and potent vaccines. Simultaneous to a more contagious virus found in Britain, very recently, another strain of coronavirus that could potentially challenge the potency of vaccines has appeared in South Africa and in Brazil. The strain, according to scientists, has mutated to an extent in which it disguises the identity/appearance of the virus in order for the virus to be able to sneak past immune protection. This is especially true given the two most popular vaccines that are being rolled out.

Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna are the two available mRNA-based vaccines which are part of the subgroup that utilizes nucleic acid to order the human cells to produce the antigens needed to fight COVID-19. While the mRNA vaccines are the most accessible on the matter of production, it only features one aspect of the virus. This means that it will be easier for another strain that looks slightly different from the typical strain of coronavirus to slip past the body’s immune response.

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How do vaccines work?

Vaccines are essentially the best way to gain immunity from a virus or altogether stop certain viruses from transmitting. For instance, there is an existing campaign by international health organizations to entirely eradicate the poliovirus. Truly, vaccines have magic-like implications when it comes to dealing with pandemics, epidemics, and a lot of illnesses. This is done through triggering an immune response from the body through an antigen which is found inside a virus. 

There are four types of vaccines, each of them utilizing the virus to stimulate an immune response.

  • Whole Virus

A lot of the vaccines that exist use an entire virus to stimulate an immune response. They either use a weakened form of the virus that can replicate itself without infecting an individual or use an inactivated virus which has had its genetic material destroyed to prevent it from replicating. Whole viruses, when not weakened enough, are risky towards those with lower immune systems. Hence, to maintain their safer nature, these vaccines need to be stored in a cold place – making it hard to massively access.

  • Protein Subunit

Protein subunits use fragments of the pathogen which are usually protein parts of the virus to stimulate an immune response, therefore minimizing the risk that whole viruses carry – amongst other possible side effects. However, the immune response to the virus may be weaker given that it is only a fragment of the vaccine. This is why most protein subunits require immune boosters/adjuvants to full actualize its intended immune response.

  • Nucleic Acid

As previously said, these types of vaccines use the genetic material which is either the RNA or the DNA to send “instructions” to the genetic code of an individual to make the antigen, prompting an immune response. These are often easy to make, affordable, and can be produced massively. However, similar to whole viruses, these need to be stored in cold temperatures – especially in the topic of RNA-type vaccines; which deprives a lot of low-middle income countries from accessing mass storage.

  • Viral Vector

Similar to nucleic acid-based vaccines, viral vectors often work by sending genetic instructions to the body in order for it to produce antigens. However, the difference lies in the fact that viral vectors often use a harmless version of the virus – the most often used viral vector vaccine type being adenovirus. Viral vectors can replicate the natural viral infection, stimulating a strong immune response.

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How does mutation of COVID-19 and other viruses work?

When viruses acquire a host, their genetic material enters the cells of that host. As this happens, the host’s cells replicate the genetic code of the virus, allowing it to spread inside of the body and it is during this process that sometimes, pieces of the virus’ code mutate or get changed.

How does mutation influence vaccines?

When viruses mutate, they either drift or shift. Drift refers to small changes within the virus, often seen through changes in the virus’ protein structure which is what is needed for immune systems to be able to detect and to respond to a virus’ antigen. Meanwhile shift refers to abrupt changes in a virus that makes it largely unrecognizable. 

Usually, vaccines are made with mutation in consideration and create them in such a way that it accommodates drifts from its protein structure. Of course, some drifts could more or less give the viruses a higher penetration rate and whatnot – but the researchers still claim that it’s effective. And in instances where the spike protein change is enough to compromise the effectiveness of a virus, they claim that only a small piece of the vaccine’s genetic code must be changed.

This means that, in the worst case scenario that new coronavirus strains pop up, there would not be much of a need to create an entirely new vaccine.

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