RNA-based viruses usually mutate into weaker variants, making it easy to control them. However, we are not hearing enough about this
Scientific debates pertaining to COVID-19 mutations are getting intense across the world in the midst of justifiable apprehensions regarding the same. It is common knowledge that every virus mutates as it is a part of the virus’ life cycle. But the uncertainties involving the outcome of the mutation of the Coronavirus are keeping the scientific research community busy as the contagion has infected 43,68,613 people worldwide and killed 2,93,782 from the time it burst upon an unsuspecting world. In India, too, the number of cases has reached 75,048 and casualties have touched the 2,440 mark. As scientists have been unable to come out with either a vaccine or drug to control the virus, it is natural for people to worry and wonder about this novel virus. But it is also equally important for people to be aware of the mutation process and understand the same in simple terms, so that there is no undue concern or anxiety.
The Novel Coronavirus is a Ribonucleic Acid or RNA virus, wherein the genetic information is stored in the form of RNA as opposed to Deoxyribonucleic Acid or DNA. Specifically in the case of COVID-19 the genetic material is packed inside a protein shell. As compared to the DNA-based viruses, RNA viruses are more prone to mutations. Given this fact, we are bound to see changes or mutations in the Coronavirus strain as well. However, these changes in the virus may not be of a serious nature and can take place in a very slow manner, which provides a stable time-frame for the research community to work on vaccines, while administration departments work on containment-related efforts.
The Coronavirus has been gradually changing or mutating but according to the research scientists involved in developing the COVID-19 vaccine at the Department of Pathology at Yale Medicine, the virus that is circulating in the US and other parts of the world at present is not very different from the original strain identified in China in the initial months of the outbreak last year.
There are rapid studies being conducted to assess the changing profile of the Coronavirus from time to time, which is helpful in quelling unsubstantiated theories and speculation. But it is also essential that the researches being commissioned and subsequently published are cross-checked with actual peer reviews and practical data from medical facilities and actual patient records.For instance, research at the US-based Los Alamos National Laboratory has shown that the COVID-19 virus has altered and, in the process, become more contagious. These findings were eventually printed in the BioRxiv publication. However, it is crucial for these papers to be peer-reviewed so that they neither create detrimental public opinion, especially in the medical fraternity, nor cause unwanted panic in general.
In-depth research of the subject of mutation of COVID-19 is of pivotal importance to mankind. It is a well-established fact that RNA-based viruses usually mutate into weaker variants, thereby making it easy for the same to be brought under control. However, we as common people are not hearing or reading enough of the same. There is a pressing need for the scientific community to highlight this potential upside of the present predicament the world finds itself in, so that public confidence is restored and maintained. This is required, as a definitive vaccine for COVID-19 is yet to see the light of day.
Coming to the subject of vaccine research, it is pertinent to understand that a slowly-mutating virus will not have any impact on the efficacy of the vaccines, as they are usually developed keeping the original virus strain in view. And since mutated versions of the virus are not far from the original version, the vaccines do deliver the intended efficacy. On the other hand, it is also important that the vaccines have long-term and broad spectrum-based efficacy so that they provide a robust immunity cover against the known mutated versions of the virus.
Lockdowns, containments and social distancing are at best temporary measures to protect the people. India’s tryst with these measures over the last 50 days has proved that beyond doubt. The real weapons to decisively take down a virus are the scientific research capabilities of a nation. India has a real opportunity here to understand the mutation sequence of COVID-19 and evolve a vaccine that protects humans from current and possible future iterations of COVID-19. To enable this, it is essential to first understand the curve of changes taking place in the virus strain and match the same with research efforts. One more critical aspect is that the Indian Government must rally the research efforts for vaccines under one coordinated canopy so that all departments concerned, institutions and related individuals are aware of the developments in an organised manner.
Accurate and authentic knowledge at the disposal of the common man regarding the virus’ mutation, its impact on the disease curve and vaccine development is critical in fighting ignorance and panic. Information and knowledge-based awareness can indeed have the power to flatten the curve.
(Writer: Kota Sriraj; Courtesy: The Pioneer)