The coronavirus is mutating, but you shouldn't freak out about it

Mutation is part of any virus's life cycle, and the novel coronavirus is no different.

Amanda Capritto
6 min read

All viruses mutate, and that's not always a bad thing.

Dowell/Getty Images

Viruses mutate. That's a thing they do, and it happens all the time. In some cases, viral mutations can be bad: They can cause an already-malignant virus to become worse, more contagious or more deadly. In many cases, however, viral mutations are rather benign. They don't change much about the virus or the way it spreads. 

The novel coronavirus -- aka SARS-CoV-2 (the actual name of the virus) and COVID-19 (the name of the disease) -- has started to mutate, and people everywhere (OK, on Twitter) are freaking out. 

Dr. Heidi J. Zapata, a Yale Medicine infectious disease specialist and immunologist, says there simply is not enough conclusive evidence to justify a mass panic about the novel coronavirus becoming more infectious or more deadly.

"Currently, we do not have sufficient evidence to come to any conclusions about the virus becoming more malicious or benign," Dr. Zapata says. "We simply know that certain variants have become more prominent, such as the D614G strain. However, currently, our evidence about D614G shows that it is not causing different clinical outcomes in humans."

In this article, learn what viral mutation really means, and why it's not worth panicking about the current status of the COVID-19 mutation. 

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How do viruses mutate? 

Viruses mutate when something about their genetic code changes, Dr. Zapata says. 

For example, a change in human DNA would result in a human mutation, she explains, and in the case of the virus SARs-COV-2, a change in the RNA results in a viral mutation. 

"Our code is determined by changes in the building blocks of our genetic code, and a change in one of the letters or code may cause a change in the organism," Dr. Zapata says. "More specifically, the coronavirus is made up of RNA, [which] is made up of nucleotides, the building blocks of both RNA and DNA."

These nucleotides provide the code for amino acids that make up the viral protein. Any change in code that resulted in a different amino acid would result in a real change, or a mutation.

There are also "silent mutations," which happen when something about a virus changes, but that change doesn't alter the way the virus works, Dr. Zapata says. 

"Most changes in viral genetic code or the nucleotides do not result in noticeable changes," she explains. "We call these changes silent mutations, in that the amino acids or protein do not change." 

"Mutations can make a virus more lethal or contagious," Dr. Zapata says. "We just don't have evidence of that yet with the SARs-CoV-2 virus."

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Is the coronavirus mutating?

Yes, the novel coronavirus is mutating, but it's mutating rather slowly, Dr. Zapata says. 

Data shows that the coronavirus "has shown to be a bit slow when it comes to accumulating mutations," she says. "Coronaviruses are interesting in that they carry a protein that 'proofreads' [their] genetic code, thus making mutations less likely compared to viruses that do not carry these proofreading proteins."

The flu, for example, does not carry a proofreading enzyme, Dr. Zapata says, so it's more prone to mutations than coronaviruses are. "The flu virus can undergo what we call antigenic drift, which is where a strain of virus slowly accumulates viral mutation during a season," she says.  "It can also undergo rearrangement of genetic code that leads to large changes called antigenic shift."

So, yes, although coronaviruses can undergo mutations, it happens at a much slower pace than what's seen with other common viruses, including influenza virus.

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Do all viruses mutate? 

In a scientific editorial in the journal Nature, the authors open up with a poignant paragraph that pretty much sums up the mutation thing: 

"Mutation. The word naturally conjures fears of unexpected and freakish changes. Ill-informed discussions of mutations thrive during virus outbreaks, including the ongoing spread of SARS-CoV-2. In reality, mutations are a natural part of the virus life cycle and rarely impact outbreaks dramatically."

"...Mutation is a humdrum aspect of life for an RNA virus," the paper continues later, going on to point out various fear-mongering and unsubstantiated claims about virus mutations from previous disease outbreaks, including the 2018 Zika virus outbreak and the 2002-2003 SARS-CoV epidemic

Because of the dramatization of the word "mutation," it's natural to become frightened at the thought of the already-deadly COVID-19 disease becoming even more lethal. However, all viruses mutate; it's what they do, and it's not always a big deal. 

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Is the coronavirus becoming more infectious?

The internet has once again done its thing, taking wishy-washy inferences from scientific papers and news coverage about COVID-19 and mutations to social media, sharing false or overblown information

Here's what happened: A paper was released in the scientific journal Cellon July 2, 2020 (full PDF), and it provided solid evidence that the coronavirus is indeed mutating, and that a specific strain of the virus -- the D614G strain -- seems to be more infectious than the original strain. 

The D614G mutation caused a change to the coronavirus's "spike protein," which is an important protein that allows the virus to enter the human body and bind to human cells.   

What people have failed to gather, however, was that the conclusion is based on in vitro (test tube) data based on field observations. Researchers noticed a prevalent pattern in the transmission of the virus: The D614G strain had become the prominent strain almost everywhere in the world, even in regional or local epidemics that began with the original strain. 

After that pattern became strikingly clear, researchers attempted to replicate it in the lab. Sure enough, the D614G strain became the dominant strain of the novel coronavirus in lab tests, too. 

Shortly after the paper was published, headlines like "New, more infectious strain of COVID-19 now dominates" went viral (too soon?) on social media, sparking the ensuing frenzy. 


Google search results that look like this don't exactly help people understand that viral mutations usually aren't anything to panic over.

Screenshot by Amanda Capritto/CNET

But, it's too soon to accept the study's findings to mean that the novel coronavirus is suddenly more dangerous, Dr. Zapata says. 

The recent literature "calls to attention the mutation D614G, which is a change in the genetic code of the spike protein that has become a dominant strain around the world, Dr. Zapata says.  "The spike protein is important because it is the viral component that binds to human cells.  However, the question of whether this mutation has made the virus more transmissible or infectious is still unanswered."

So far, Dr. Zapata says, we know that patients who had the D614G variant of the novel coronavirus had higher levels of RNA in their bodies, but -- and this part is critical -- when clinical outcomes were compared to other patients that did not have the variant, no differences were noted. 

A "short communication" from a few scientists in theInternational Journal of Infectious Diseasessuggests that the D614G mutation "may be more virulent," but call out that their own evidence is "circumstantial" and the link is "unclear."

Another short communication in the journal Infection, Genetics and Evolution reports that the mutations are "of significance" and should be investigated further. It's probably safe to assume that investigations are ongoing. 

Even if the novel coronavirus does mutate into a more infectious, more deadly virus, prevention measures remain the same: Wash your hands, wear your mask, stay six feet apart from other people, avoid contact with sick people, stay home when you feel sick, and avoid unnecessary travel domestically and internationally. 

You can also still take personal measures to keep yourself healthier, thus safer. Optimize your immune system by prioritizing sleep, limiting alcohol, consuming enough essential nutrients (particularly vitamin C and vitamin D), staying hydrated and exercising.

The information contained in this article is for educational and informational purposes only and is not intended as health or medical advice. Always consult a physician or other qualified health provider regarding any questions you may have about a medical condition or health objectives.