COVID-19 virus continues to mutate, but at a slower rate, expert predicts

  • The virus that causes COVID-19 is probably not done mutating, said a scientist who tracked it down.
  • Mutations may occur less frequently than before, but could help the virus avoid the immune response, he said.
  • The virus has been mutating at a slower rate since October 2020, said Trevor Bedford of Fred Hutch.

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The virus that causes COVID-19 is likely to continue to mutate, but less rapidly than it has done in the past, a leading scientist has predicted.

Trevor Bedford, Associate Professor of Bioinformatics in the Department of Vaccines and Infectious Diseases at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, said on Twitter on Monday that he strongly doubted that the virus causing COVID-19, SARS-CoV2, had “hit a wall in terms of its evolutionary potential.”

Bedford said he expected new mutations would help the virus escape the body’s immune response, but that these mutations would occur at a slower rate than in 2020.

The highly infectious Delta variant, which in itself is a mutation from the original coronavirus, already has mutated strains, including one called AY.4.2, that do not appear to be more dangerous.

Delta became the most common variant in the world within nine months of its first detection, in India in October 2020.

Variants of SARS-CoV2 appeared to “burst onto the scene in early 2021 due to exponential growth.” Then Delta, which was more than twice as contagious as the original virus, became the only “virus that stands,” he said.

“I suggest we are already seeing a slowdown between 2020 and today,” Bedford said.

Delta declining

Public Health England (PHE) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said in October that they were closely monitoring a Delta-related coronavirus called AY.4.2.

AY.4.2 has been detected in 39 countries and 13 US states, but about 94% of global AY.4.2 is in the UK, according to Outbreak.Info, which is run by the Scripps Research Institute and funded by the National Institute for Allergy and Infectious Diseases.

Dr. Jeremy Barrett, Head of the Singer Institute, said on Twitter on Monday that he “began to become curious as to why it has had such a consistent growth advantage in the UK, but has not really increased elsewhere in the world.”

It is not yet clear whether the virus is inherently more contagious or whether the growth in England is due to characteristics of the population in which it spread. It accounted for about 11% of Delta cases in England on 23 October and about 15 % of cases on November 6, according to PHE.

So far, AY.4.2 is no more deadly than Delta, and vaccines protect against it, according to the latest PHE report released on Friday.

Francois Balloux, Director of the Institute of Genetics at University College London, said on Twitter on Monday: “I personally’m not particularly worried about AY.4.2.”

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