Scientists: Slow mutation rate may allow for long-lasting coronavirus vaccine

Researchers studying COVID-19 have made a a potentially promising discovery.

The novel coronavirus doesn’t mutate very quickly, biologists told The Washington Post, and if the finding bears out as accurate, then a single vaccine may be effective against the virus for a long period of time.

Slow mutation

Peter Thielen, a molecular geneticist at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory, said that the virus has mutated between four and 10 times since it first emerged in China and spread to the United States. Because the virus is thus relatively stable, any vaccine formulated to fight it would likely have a longer shelf life than, say, a typical seasonal flu shot, the Washington Examiner reported.

“That’s a relatively small number of mutations for having passed through a large number of people,” Thielen said. “At this point, the mutation rate of the virus would suggest that the vaccine developed for SARS-CoV-2 would be a single vaccine, rather than a new vaccine every year like the flu vaccine.”

Thielen compared any future coronavirus vaccine to longer-lasting immunizations like those given for chickenpox. “I would expect a vaccine for coronavirus would have a similar profile to those vaccines. It’s great news.”

Little variation in lethality

The relative stability of the virus also makes it predictable in another key way, namely, its lethality. Since there is little variation between different strains, it is likely that the virus will not get any deadlier, at least not during the current wave.

“Just one ‘pretty bad’ strain for everybody so far. If it’s still around in a year, by that point we might have some diversity,” said Benjamin Neuman of Texas A&M University.

Health officials have warned that the novel coronavirus — though the current pandemic is still being studied — is deadlier than the seasonal flu. So far, COVID-19 has infected hundreds of thousands around the world and killed thousands. But any geographical disparities in the impact of the virus — Italy has been especially hard hit — appear to be tied to social factors, not genetic ones, the researchers said.

“So far, we don’t have any evidence linking a specific virus [strain] to any disease severity score,” Thielen said. “Right now, disease severity is much more likely to be driven by other factors.”

Seasonal virus?

Public health experts like Dr. Anthony Fauci have warned that any vaccine for the coronavirus will likely take 18 months to develop, possibly longer than the current pandemic will last. It may be hard for Americans to contemplate right now, but Fauci has said that COVID-19 may recur as a seasonal disease, according to CNBC.

“Would this possibly become a seasonal cyclic thing? I’ve always indicated to you that I think it very well might,” Fauci said Wednesday, adding that it’s imperative to develop a vaccine “so we can have it ready for the next cycle.”

Amidst all of the uncertainty wrought by this deadly pandemic, it’s somewhat reassuring to think that at least one aspect of this virus might actually be predictable.

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