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MSU Expert Discusses Coronavirus Mutations

COVID-19 vaccine bottle photo
Scott Pohl
Researchers think the existing COVID-19 vaccines will be effective against mutating virus strains.

The discovery of a new variant of the coronavirus in Great Britain, and it’s appearance in the U.S., has experts considering the next steps in fighting COVID-19.

British scientists have done far more genomic sequencing research than the Americans. That work must continue in an effort to find any other strains that might develop.

WKAR’s Scott Pohl discussed the mutation of the coronavirus with MSU expert Dr. Peter Gulick. The infectious disease specialist says that while the new strain is more contagious, it isn’t causing more severe COVID cases. At least one other variant has already been discovered.

DR. PETER GULICK: This one appears to have another genetic change that is allowing this virus to be more infectious. Plus, it may have changed the binding site, the ability of the virus to bind better, not only bind better, but be resistant to these monoclonal antibodies that are being developed now. So, there may even be a resistance to this new strain to some of the therapies, especially the monoclonal antibody. This new strain was found in South Africa, and it's called the African variant.

SCOTT POHL: It isn't unusual for a virus to mutate. The influenza virus mutates, it seems, constantly. That's why we need a new flu shot every year. Is this COVID-19 mutation special in any way? Is it mutating faster than we might have expected?

DR. GULICK: Actually, the RNA within this COVID virus has a proofreading mechanism where anytime a mutation occurs, it kind of cuts that out of the segment of RNA, so it doesn't cause mutations to occur. So, it's a virus, it's rather stable with its RNA, but because of the pressure put on it from being allowed to replicate in a chronic state in patients that are immunosuppressed, where they can't clear the virus immediately, and then being exposed to treatments, constantly being bombarded by antivirals, by monoclonal antibodies etcetera, it's now changed and developed this process of mutation. How fast it occurs, or how effective it occurs, we don't know yet. The mutations that have occurred, many of them cause the virus to become non-effective.

There was a mutation that apparently occurred even earlier than these two that I mentioned to you, that allowed it to bind more effectively onto the receptors, but then the neutralizing antibodies that occurred as a result were able to negate the effect of the virus, and eliminate it, so it never really became a problem until these new strains occurred.

POHL: Do we have a sense yet for how effective the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines might be against the new strains we're seeing?

DR. GULICK: Right now, both companies are looking very, very hard at these new variants and testing them against their vaccine to see, but both companies, including some other scientists, are very optimistic that the vaccine will still be effective against these variants. We'll have to just see within the next few weeks or so, as they're doing studies right now, but there's still a lot of optimism that the vaccines will work even against these variants.

POHL: It seems it would be wise for us to expect more mutations.

DR. GULICK: Yes. I've lived through this with HIV, and now I'm living through it with the COVID, as far as resistance and mutations. Sure enough, as we expose the virus to new treatments, we're trying to control the virus, but on the other hand, we can cause it also to change, and like I said, the patients where it seems to be most effective in doing that is in our immunosuppressed population, our patients with cancer, with HIV, that aren't able to clear the virus as easily as somebody that's not immunosuppressed. They carry the virus longer, but they're the ones usually being treated as well because they're sicker, and those treatments are resulting in mutations forming because the virus wants to stay alive just like we do, and so it finds ways of changing its structure.

Scott Pohl is a general assignment news reporter and produces news features and interviews. He is also an alternate local host on NPR's "Morning Edition."
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