In this screen grab from video issued by Britain’s Oxford University, a volunteer is injected with either an experimental COVID-19 vaccine or a comparison shot as part of the first human trials in the U.K. to test a potential vaccine, led by Oxford University in England on April 25, 2020. About 100 research groups around the world are pursuing vaccines against the coronavirus, with nearly a dozen in early stages of human trials or poised to start. (University of Oxford via AP)

In this screen grab from video issued by Britain’s Oxford University, a volunteer is injected with either an experimental COVID-19 vaccine or a comparison shot as part of the first human trials in the U.K. to test a potential vaccine, led by Oxford University in England on April 25, 2020. About 100 research groups around the world are pursuing vaccines against the coronavirus, with nearly a dozen in early stages of human trials or poised to start. (University of Oxford via AP)

Are COVID-19 mutations cause for alarm? Experts say no, viruses change often

A vaccine could be updated similarly to how flu shots are changed for new strains

A recent study sparked some worry last week when it revealed a mutation “of urgent concern” in the virus responsible for COVID-19. But experts say more research is needed to determine what that really means.

The preliminary, non peer-reviewed study from the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico indicated that a COVID-19 strand containing a specific mutation — on the spike protein D614G — is emerging as the dominant form of the virus.

The U.S. team’s study, which analyzed data from coronavirus patients in England, also suggested the mutation could be making the virus more infectious.

The problem, experts say, is that the research doesn’t reveal any proof of that.

“There’s really no evidence from the scientific study that this particular mutation is causing the virus to be more transmissible than other genetic variants of the virus,” said Dr. Isaac Bogoch, an infectious diseases specialist based at Toronto General Hospital and a faculty member at the University of Toronto.

“Could a mutation (with that effect) happen? Sure. Will it happen? Who knows.”

READ MORE: ‘Community immunity’ testing for COVID-19 getting closer in B.C.

Mutations are commonplace in nature, whether it’s in viruses or any other living organism, and they occur when a “mistake” is made during a cell’s replication phase.

While some mutations can make a virus more potent, others might make it less effective. And most just don’t do anything.

“Viruses mutate, that’s what they do, they just change over time,” said BC Children’s Hospital clinical researcher Dr. Srinivas Murthy, who added he’s not concerned with the findings from the U.S. research.

“Truthfully, I have no takeaways from it. … We have no data from this (study) that says the transmissibility is different and we have no data from this that says the severity is any different.”

Scientists have found plenty of mutations to the novel coronavirus, not just D614G. A recent study from University College London indicated that ”198 sites in the SARS-CoV-2 genome appear to have already undergone recurrent, independent mutations.”

That study also found the vast majority of those mutations to be ”likely neutral.”

READ MORE: Normal life won’t fully return until COVID-19 vaccine developed, Trudeau says

Art Poon, an associate health sciences professor and expert in virus evolution at Western University in London, Ont., says people generally fear mutations because they perceive the word to mean a freakish flaw.

“When people hear mutation they think of X-Men, right?” Poon said. “But it’s important to remember most mutations don’t do much of anything.”

Poon says the reason D614G has been given so much attention is because its of prevalence in the COVID-19 genome.

Scientists believe the mutation was introduced to Europe in early February, with Poon adding it was likely ”inherited from a single ancestor that happened to be one of the first lineages to move out of China.”

That would mean the specific D614G mutation isn’t technically new, as most cases in the U.S. and Canada would have probably come from this strand.

Even if Canada’s first COVID-19 cases came from the original virus that didn’t carry the D614G mutation, Poon said North America would soon after have had an influx in cases that did carry the mutation once the virus migrated in from Europe.

That could explain why the strand is emerging as dominant, as the U.S. study suggested, he said.

“But that’s not because of selection for human-to-human transmission, it would be due to what we call a ‘founder effect’ — (where) the lineage founding the epidemic in Europe happened to carry this mutation,” Poon said.

Bogoch said mutations can actually help us better understand a virus by pinpointing its origin.

“They’re like fingerprints of the virus,” he said. ”And there’s a lot of good information that these mutations can really help scientists with.”

While mutations can potentially become problematic in terms of vaccine development, experts say there’s no evidence D614G will cause researchers to have to abandon any work that’s already being done.

And those problems can usually be solved, anyway.

Vaccines are created to target a specific part of the virus, Bogoch said, so if the part being targeted is changing, the vaccine would also need to adapt. Usually that means creating a vaccine that is constantly updated and taken periodically — similar to the flu shot — rather than a one-time inoculation.

“That’s why we have seasonal influenza vaccine, because we’re essentially playing an arms race with how we create a vaccine against an evolving virus,” Bogoch said. “So could that happen with COVID-19? Maybe, who knows. It is certainly a possibility.

“But it’s just too soon to speculate how this is going to impact a vaccine that we don’t even have yet.”

Melissa Couto, The Canadian Press


Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

Want to support local journalism during the pandemic? Make a donation here.

Coronavirus

Just Posted

People were lined up around the fields at a drop-in vaccine clinic at Newton Athletic Park on Tuesday (April 27, 2021), which is one of the high-transmission neighbourhoods that are being given vaccine priority. This clinic was one of at least three to open in the city on Tuesday. (Photo: Lauren Collins)
Surrey’s weekly cases continue to drop, push for 80% vaccination rate citywide

BCCDC reports 263 cases for Surrey the week of May 30 to June 5

Fleetwood Park Secondary School’s 2021 commencement ceremonies were held over the course of two days, June 10 and 11. Grads went through a small, distanced ceremony in groups of four, with up to four members of the grad’s household. (Photo: Lauren Collins)
Surrey’s 2021 grads find creative ways to celebrate in another year of COVID-19

This year’s Grade 12 students were unable to have any large-scale events

Friends of Bear Creek Park held a ‘yellow-ribbon event’ on Saturday (June 12, 2021), with protesters at 84th Avenue and King George Boulevard and 84th Avenue and 140th Street. People were asked to tie a yellow ribbon in their yard “to celebrate and to show support for our trees in Bear Creek Park.” (Photo: Lauren Collins)
Protesters hold ‘yellow-ribbon’ event at Surrey’s Bear Creek Park

People asked to tie a yellow ribbon in their yard to ‘show support for our trees’

All nine White Rock Renegades softball teams are set to take part in the Canadian Pride and Power Tournament, scheduled for July 1-4. (Aaron Hinks photo)
White Rock Renegades set to host multi-team Pride and Power softball tournament

‘There’s going to be a lot of excitement in the park,’ said Greg Timm

The Lower Mainland Green Team and students from Earl Marriott Secondary remove invasive plants from White Rock’s Ruth Johnson Park. (Contributed photo)
Green Team returns to White Rock’s Ruth Johnson Park to monitor previous work

Environmental volunteers, South Surrey students remove invasive species

At an outdoor drive-in convocation ceremony, Mount Royal University bestows an honorary Doctor of Laws on Blackfoot Elder and residential school survivor Clarence Wolfleg in Calgary on Tuesday, June 8, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jeff McIntosh
‘You didn’t get the best of me’: Residential school survivor gets honorary doctorate

Clarence Wolfleg receives honorary doctorate from Mount Royal University, the highest honour the school gives out

Neuroscientists say that people are 70 per cent more likely to recall your brand after seeing it in print. Other studies have shown that 82 per cent of consumers report that they trust print ads in relation to other media. ADOBE STOCK IMAGE
IT’S YOUR BUSINESS: A case for print

Print is still a highly effective medium for helping businesses reach their customers, according to Joe Smith

A million-dollar ticket was sold to an individual in Vernon from the Lotto Max draw Friday, June 11, 2021. (Photo courtesy of BCLC)
Lottery ticket worth $1 million sold in Vernon

One lucky individual holds one of 20 tickets worth $1 million from Friday’s Lotto Max draw

“65 years, I’ve carried the stories in my mind and live it every day,” says Jack Kruger. (Athena Bonneau)
‘Maybe this time they will listen’: Survivor shares stories from B.C. residential school

Jack Kruger, living in Syilx territory, wasn’t surprised by news of 215 children’s remains found on the grounds of the former Kamloops Indian Residential School

Cannabis bought in British Columbia (Ashley Wadhwani/Black Press Media)
Is it time to start thinking about greener ways to package cannabis?

Packaging suppliers are still figuring eco-friendly and affordable packaging options that fit the mandates of Cannabis Regulations

A logging truck carries its load down the Elaho Valley near in Squamish, B.C. in this file photo. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chuck Stoody
Squamish Nation calls for old-growth logging moratorium in its territory

The nation says 44% of old-growth forests in its 6,900-square kilometre territory are protected while the rest remain at risk

Flowers and cards are left at a makeshift memorial at a monument outside the former Kamloops Indian Residential School to honour the 215 children whose remains are believed to have been discovered buried near the city in Kamloops, B.C., on Monday, May 31, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck
‘Pick a Sunday:’ Indigenous leaders ask Catholics to stay home, push for apology

Indigenous leaders are calling on Catholics to stand in solidarity with residential school survivors by not attending church services

“They will never be forgotten, every child matters,” says Sioux Valley Chief Jennifer Bone in a video statement June 1. (Screen grab)
104 ‘potential graves’ detected at site of former residential school in Manitoba

Sioux Valley Dakota Nation working to identify, repatriate students buried near former Brandon residential school

The Queen Victoria statue at the B.C. legislature was splattered with what looks like red paint on Friday. (Nicole Crescenzi/News Staff)
Queen Victoria statue at B.C. legislature vandalized Friday

Statue splattered with red paint by old growth forest proponents

Most Read