(Updated Mar 28 07:15 PST to reflect current numbers)

Researchers studying the genetics of SARS-CoV-2, the coronavirus that causes the disease known as COVID-19, have uncovered some good news regarding the virus, in that it doesn’t appear to mutate nearly as readily as the seasonal flu. This means that any vaccine developed for the virus will likely have improved long-term effectiveness in providing immunity against the coronavirus.

After having analyzed more than 1,000 samples of SARS-CoV-2, researchers with the Applied Physics Laboratory at Johns Hopkins University found that there were only four to ten genetic differences between samples of the virus collected recently in the United States and ones gathered at the start of the outbreak in Wuhan, China.

“That’s a relatively small number of mutations for having passed through a large number of people,” according to molecular geneticist Peter Thielen. “At this point, the mutation rate of the virus would suggest that the vaccine developed for SARS-CoV-2 would be a single vaccine, rather than a new vaccine every year like the flu vaccine.”

The vaccine available for the seasonal flu only offers immunity to the flu for a limited time due to the fast pace of mutation that occurs amongst the virus’s various strains that circulate; these mutations mean that any given virus is different than the one from the previous year, making the previous year’s vaccine ineffective against the current strain. However, if researchers at JHU are correct, SARS-CoV-2’s low mutation rate could mean that a future vaccine for the disease could provide a longer-lasting period of protection, like the shots currently available for measles or chicken pox. “I would expect a vaccine for coronavirus would have a similar profile to those vaccines. It’s great news,” Thielen said.

“Flu does have one trick up its sleeve that coronaviruses do not have — the flu virus genome is broken up into several segments, each of which codes for a gene,” explains co-researcher Benjamin Neuman of Texas A&M University. “When two flu viruses are in the same cell, they can swap some segments, potentially creating a new combination instantly — this is how the H1N1 ‘swine’ flu originated.”

Although several COVID-19 vaccines are currently in development, none of them would be available until early next year, as the treatments need to pass key tests for both effectiveness and safety; if shortcuts are made, the shipped medication could prove to be, at best, ineffective against the virus, or it could possibly turn out to be more harmful than the disease itself.

And treatments for this disease can’t come fast enough: there are over 615,000 confirmed infections worldwide, affecting 177 countries, resulting in 28,700 deaths.

The lockdown in China is currently being lifted, with the vast majority of people that had been stricken with the virus having recovered; unfortunately, nearly 3,300 people lost their lives in that country alone. Italy is still the hardest-hit nation thus far, with 86,500 confirmed cases overwhelming the country’s health system, and nearly 9,200 dead.

Over 100,000 people in the United States have been confirmed to be infected with COVID-19. This is currently the largest number of confirmed active cases in the world, with the virus having killed over 1,700 Americans over the last four weeks. New York City is currently the epicenter of the US outbreak, with 26,700 people confirmed to have been infected with the virus, and over 450 having died in the city so far.

On March 25, the US Senate passed a $2.2 trillion aid package that would provide relief to businesses, hospitals, and individual Americans from the devastating economic effects currently being caused by the pandemic, with up to $1,200 being sent to each US citizen with an annual income less than $75,000.

3 Comments

  1. no source? white paper? peer reviewed journal…that is a big claim

    1. Sorry about that James, that is odd that the source (WaPo) wasn’t included, it’s fixed now.

      Thielen was reporting this directly to Washington Post, and I was under the impression that this development is too new to have allowed time for publication, let alone review. Time will tell: even if their findings are accurate, circumstances could very well change between now and when a vaccine is ready to ship. Here’s hoping the virus is as stable as it appears.

      I do have to make a correction here: when I was writing this, I mistook Benjamin Neuman as part of Thielen’s research team; rather, WaPo describes him as being “on the international committee that named the coronavirus.”

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