COVID-19's spread from China to the rest of the world has forced governments to take drastic public health and safety steps to prevent it from spreading further. These activities were mandated as a stopgap measure before scientists were able to develop a viable virus vaccine.

However, viruses - like COVID-19 - undergo mutations as they multiply. What exactly are these mutations, what do they do, and how do they affect the pandemic?

Daily Life In Beijing After China Declared Epidemic Contained
(Photo : Lintao Zhang/Getty Images)
BEIJING, CHINA - APRIL 13: Commuters wear protective masks as they exit a train at a subway station during Monday rush hour on April 13, 2020 in Beijing, China. According to the statistics of the World Health Organization, as of today, the cumulative number of confirmed cases of COVID-19 has exceeded 1.69 million, including 106,138 deaths.

What Is COVID-19 Mutation?

Experts, according to WION, call mutation a variant of the original virus if it mutates several times. "Most" of these strains are harmless, although certain variants of the coronavirus are now causing a worldwide outbreak.

The Guardian said coronavirus's genetic code is encoded in about 30,000 letters of RNA, a molecule identical to DNA. The virus's genetic code is copied as it infects human cells, resulting in new virus particles. However, errors occur throughout the process, and these copying errors result in mutations in the new virus.

When Did Coronavirus Start to Mutate?

SARS-CoV-2 has been evolving since the beginning of the pandemic.

Most mutations are ineffective and go undetected. But every now and then, a sequence of mutations can result in a stronger variant at infecting and sickening people.

That's just what we see right now. Given the new variants' rapid spread, experts believe they contain mutations that make it easier for the virus to bind to our cells.

Healthline said coronavirus started to mutate in May 2020, when experts first detected the D614G version in Australia and India. The Guardian called this variant "Doug."

The study, titled "Structural Impact on Sars-Cov-2 Spike Protein by d614g Substitution," claimed that Doug stabilized the spike proteins that enable the virus to attach to and infect human cells.

The B.1.1.7 variant was discovered in the United Kingdom in December, followed by the B.1.351 variant in South Africa and new variants in Los Angeles and Ohio.

Why Do the Same Mutations Keep Reappearing?

By chance, the same mutations will occur. However, convergent evolution might be at work as variants worldwide gain a boost after gaining multiple matching mutations (D614G, N501Y, and E484K are all present in Kent, South African, and Brazilian variants). This occurs as viruses in various areas of the world respond to evolutionary pressure in the same way.

Viruses aren't the only ones that adapt in this way. Across the animal world, experts can observe convergent evolution. Humans and domesticated animals, for example, have developed similar mutations to survive in the low oxygen environments of the Tibetan plateau, Andes, and Ethiopian highlands.

What is Causing the Virus to Evolve?

Some of the mutations can aid the virus's adaptation to its new human host. Other genetic changes, especially those that have recently emerged, may have arisen to circumvent population immunity. It's difficult to distinguish between the two since a single mutation can affect both aspects of the virus's behavior.

What Would the Virus's Future Look Like?

No one can foresee how the virus will develop as experts create COVID-19 vaccines. But Oliver Pybus, an Oxford professor of evolution and infectious disease, likens the situation to a chess game. Currently, the virus may only have a limited number of viable adaptations to the pressure it is under, resulting in the recurrence of the same mutations. However, vaccines protect more people, and new treatments enter hospitals, new options for the virus may become available.

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