News about a new coronavirus variant that was identified in Britain made headlines this week. Dr. Neville Sanjana, a geneticist at the New York Genome Center, explains why viruses mutate and the possible significance of this new variant.
MATT HANCOCK: Over the last few days, thanks to our world class genomic capability in the UK, we have identified a new variant of coronavirus. I must stress at this point that there is currently nothing to suggest that this variant is more likely to cause serious disease. And the latest clinical advice is that it's highly unlikely that this mutation would fail to respond to a vaccine.
NEVILLE SANJANA: Mutations in viruses are totally normal. They happen all the time. And it's honestly, it's part of the kind of molecular arms race between viruses and their hosts. Of course, the host develops immune defenses. Like, our immune system has T-cells and B-cells and all this kind of fancy artillery to get rid of viruses. And viruses try to compensate for this. They try and mutate new kinds of weapons and ways that they can get around those immune defenses.
The very first viruses that emerged almost a year ago now are not the viruses that is circulating, really, almost in any country. So there are different variants that have taken hold from many of the variants with SARS-COV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19. Many of them, there's so many that have emerged that likely have no effect.
I would say on the whole, there's not a lot of evidence for most variants leading to more severe COVID or being more infectious. But for most of these variants, you know, you can see them rise in prevalence. It doesn't have to be because it's more infectious or leads to more severe COVID. It can be that they rise in prevalence just due to some founder effects that maybe in a particular region that didn't have virus or that it successfully kind of battled the virus down, the first reintroduction or the first initial introduction just happened to have these mutations. We call that a founder effect, and it might just be a founder.
I think independent of any specific variant, I think what the last few months have really taught us-- and this is true for any new variants-- is that what we need to develop and what I think a lot of academic labs and testing centers are developing is the ability to very quickly characterize new variants. Does it change the incidence of severe COVID? Does it change drug response? All these things, as more of these mutations emerge, the faster we can do that and really characterize them, I think the less fearful we're going to be of any new mutation. Because the virus is certainly going to keep on mutating. But it's really up to us to almost-- to be able to forecast, or at least, to react in the moment quickly, now that we know that mutations emerge all the time.