How worried should you be about coronavirus variants? A virologist explains his concerns

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Paulo Verardi, University of Connecticut

(THE CONVERSATION) Spring has sprung, and there is a sense of relief in the air. After one year of lockdowns and social distancing, more than 171 million COVID-19 vaccine doses have been administered in the U.S. and about 19.4% of the population is fully vaccinated. But there is something else in the air: ominous SARS-CoV-2 variants.

I am a virologist and vaccinologist, which means that I spend my days studying viruses and designing and testing vaccine strategies against viral diseases. In the case of SARS-CoV-2, this work has taken on greater urgency. We humans are in a race to become immune against this cagey virus, whose ability to mutate and adapt seems to be a step ahead of our capacity to gain herd immunity. Because of the variants that are emerging, it could be a race to the wire.

Five variants to watch

RNA viruses like SARS-CoV-2 constantly mutate as they make more copies of themselves. Most of these mutations end up being disadvantageous to the virus and therefore disappear through natural selection.

Occasionally, though, they offer a benefit to the mutated or so-called genetic-variant virus. An example would be a mutation that improves the ability of the virus to attach more tightly to human cells, thus enhancing viral replication. Another would be a mutation that allows the virus to spread more easily from person to person, thus increasing transmissibility.

None of this is surprising for a virus that is a fresh arrival in the human population and still adapting to humans as hosts. While viruses don't think, they are governed by the same evolutionary drive that all organisms are – their first order of business is to perpetuate themselves.

These mutations have resulted in several new SARS-CoV-2 variants, leading to outbreak clusters, and in some cases, global spread. They are broadly classified as variants of interest, concern or high consequence.

Currently there are five variants…
Paulo Verardi
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