What is ‘new mutation’? Fauci says it may speed the spread of coronavirus

LOS ANGELES -- The country’s top infectious disease expert said Thursday that the novel coronavirus has mutated in a way that might help it replicate better and spread more easily.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, shared this research in an interview with the Journal of the American Medical Association.

“We don’t have a connection to whether an individual does worse with this or not. It just seems that the virus replicates better and may be more transmissible,” Fauci said.

But, what is a “new mutation,” and should the public be worried?

What is a virus mutation?

The National Cancer Institute defines a ‘“new mutation” as a genetic alteration that is present for the first time in one family member as a result of a mutation in a germ cell of one of the parents.

In layman’s terms, viruses naturally mutate and can replicate, especially those that are considered RNA viruses, like the flu, measles, SARS, and now SARS-CoV-2, better known as the novel coronavirus. RNA viruses are defined by their collection of genetic material packed inside a protein shell.

Are virus mutations rare?

Mark Schleiss, the American Legion Professor of Pediatric Infectious Diseases at the University of Minnesota Medical School, says viruses constantly undergo evolution at the molecular level, but RNA viruses are particularly prone to mutation. This is why the flu shot and virus strains change often.

Will this mutation make people more susceptible to COVID-19 infection?

“We know now from this mutation that’s being described, that it does seem to lead to increased levels of the virus in the body and an increased ability to infect and probably to transmit,” Schleiss said.

Will more people die from COVID-19 due to the mutation?

Schleiss said that we don’t know yet whether this mutation will translate into more deaths, but it does seem that it will have an impact on the transmissibility of the coronavirus

“The molecular evolution of the virus has gone from some extent from bad to worse, because now we have a virus that’s even more transmissible and more readily infectable for people,” he added.

Will the mutation impact when a vaccine may be available?

Schleiss doesn’t believe this new mutation will make it more difficult for vaccine development, adding that he would be surprised if we had a vaccine by Spring of 2021, but he is optimistic.“There’s a compelling need for a vaccine, and I’m very excited about the progress that’s being made,” he said. “I think we need to be cautious that we don’t rush to judgment and release a vaccine before it’s been fully evaluated.”