I am skeptical of the wild claims about getting a COVID-19 vaccine in 12-18 months, and now there is powerful research about coronavirus mutations that makes me very concerned about getting an effective vaccine. And you thought murder hornets were bad?
These coronavirus mutations could mean a disaster for current vaccine research – if we’re developing vaccines for a previous strain of COVID-19, rather than more current (and apparently, more virulent) coronavirus vaccines.
This makes the murder hornets look like a ladybug.
A recent paper looks at a particularly dangerous strain of coronavirus mutations that should make us reassess any optimism about getting a new COVID-19 vaccine. Let’s examine the paper.
Because of the urgency to get coronavirus research out for researchers, many papers are being published online as “preprints,” while they are being peer-reviewed by major journals. So, these reprints may change slightly (or potentially rejected for publication) when the final paper is published. However, during this time of urgent scientific communication, preprints allow us to get research early.
A paper about coronavirus mutations, “Spike mutation pipeline reveals the emergence of a more transmissible form of SARS-CoV-2,” was published on the preprint server bioRxiv by Dr. Bette Korber, a highly-published theoretical biology and biophysics researcher at Los Alamos National Laboratory, and others at Los Alamos, Duke University and the University of Sheffield in England.
The researchers performed a computational analysis of more than 6,000 coronavirus RNA sequences from all around the world. The sequences were collected by the Global Initiative for Sharing All Influenza Data, which obviously originally focused on the influenza viruses which change a lot over time.
Dr. Korber et al. have identified a new coronavirus mutation that has become the dominant strain worldwide. Moreover, this strain appears to be more contagious than the ones that were prevalent in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic.
This new mutation first appeared in Europe in February 2020, then migrated fairly soon thereafter to the East Coast of the USA. It has subsequently become the dominant strain of COVID-19 across the world since approximately mid-March 2020.
Not only is this strain spreading faster (possibly because it is more infectious), but it also appears to make individuals more vulnerable to a second infection after an initial round with COVID-19. This is devastating news.
According to the researchers, Italy was one of the first countries to experience the new coronavirus mutation, almost simultaneously with the original strain. Washington state was, of course, one of the first states to get hit with COVID-19 in late February 2019. However, by March 15, the mutated strain was the predominant one.
The authors did the same analysis for New York City, which was hit by the original strain of the virus around March 15. However, within a few days, the mutant strain was dominant within a week.
Dr. Korber, in a Facebook post on her personal page, wrote:
The story is worrying, as we see a mutated form of the virus very rapidly emerging, and over the month of March becoming the dominant pandemic form. When viruses with this mutation enter a population, they rapidly begin to take over the local epidemic, thus they are more transmissible.
This is hard news but please don’t only be disheartened by it. Our team at LANL was able to document this mutation and its impact on transmission only because of a massive global effort of clinical people and experimental groups, who make new sequences of the virus (SARS-CoV-2) in their local communities available as quickly as they possibly can.
What this means for vaccines
The researchers have found 14 new mutations on the spike protein, that part of the viral envelope that attaches to cells and assists the virus to infect those cells. Those mutations occurred among the nearly 30,000 base pairs of coronavirus RNA that other scientists say make up the coronavirus’s genome. The report authors focused on a mutation called D614G, which is responsible for the change in the virus’ spikes.
Almost all of the coronavirus vaccine research is using RNA sequencing of the early strains of the spike protein, which most of the current vaccine research is targeting (see Note 1). If the immune system, after vaccination, doesn’t recognize these mutated spike proteins, it could mean that we have to go back to the start with coronavirus vaccines.
The authors stated that there was an “urgent need for an early warning” about coronavirus mutations because it could be an important factor in the development of new vaccines and drugs. This is why I keep pumping the brakes on a new coronavirus vaccine – the rush to get any vaccine for this virus seems to have ignored some of these mutations in the virus.
As I keep saying, unless the vaccine is safe and effective, it is essentially worthless to end this pandemic. Although this study doesn’t show us why this strain has dominated, it’s clear it has some advantageous evolutionary fitness over the original strain – this is an almost perfect example of evolution (and contradicts that lame creationist trope that we never observe it).
And remember, this is just the first mutation. What if this virus has another evolutionarily advantageous mutation that makes it even more virulent? This is one of the many reasons why I think that a vaccine is years away, even if we get one.
Most of the 70 or more companies or organizations working on a COVID-19 vaccine are basing their development on a belief that the virus is stable, unlike other diseases such as influenza. This new study could cause a hard stop to research, unless these vaccines are able to generate an immune response, however minor, against the new strains of the virus.
This study does not tell us why the new coronavirus mutation is more deadly than the original strain. My own hypothesis is that the mutation allows the SARS-CoV-2 virus to somehow avoid the immune system in most individuals.
Understanding both the rate of mutation and why this strain is more dangerous are critical research directions that will be necessary to develop both a vaccine and a treatment.
As I keep stating, we just don’t know much about this virus. That’s why “Operation Warp Speed” is something we should avoid.
- Generally, the immune system does not recognize a whole virus, just specific antigens on the surface viral envelope. Thus, vaccine research focuses on the most immunogenic protein on the surface, like the coronavirus spike protein, to induce the best immune response. Viruses like the flu, which mutate frequently, are a challenge for vaccines because the surface antigens keep mutating.
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