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As Virus Rampages, a Sliver of Hope

COVID-19 doesn't seem to be mutating much, which could help with vaccine
By John Johnson,  Newser Staff
Posted Mar 25, 2020 1:50 PM CDT

(Newser) – It's not typical these days to hear the phrase "great news" associated with the coronavirus, but those are the words used by a molecular geneticist at Johns Hopkins in an interview with the Washington Post. The reason? COVID-19 hasn't mutated much since spreading from China, and that could be a big help with an eventual vaccine. Coverage:

  • The hope: Scientists have found only four to 10 genetic differences in strains so far, which is "a relatively small number," Johns Hopkins' Peter Thielen tells the Post. It means that an eventual vaccine could be of the one-size-fits-all variety—as with the measles or chickenpox, a person could get one shot and receive protection for a long period. “I would expect a vaccine for coronavirus would have a similar profile to those vaccines," says Thielen. "It’s great news." That's a key difference with, say, the ordinary flu, which mutates so rapidly that a different vaccine is needed each year.

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  • Same idea: A new study out of hard-hit Italy reaches the same general conclusion—the coronavirus is relatively slow to mutate, reports TechCrunch. This "is very good news indeed," writes Darrell Etherington, while cautioning that health experts such as Dr. Anthony Fauci, the White House's go-to man on the crisis, say any such vaccine is likely a year or so away. Once it arrives, however, it could be potent.
  • The caution: Things could change. Over the weekend, Fauci was asked on CBS News about whether the coronavirus was mutating. "Well, this is an RNA virus ... and it always will mutate," he explained. "I have no doubt it's mutating as all RNA viruses mutate," but the good news is that "we have not seen thus far any type of change in the way it's acting." It's possible the virus could still mutate in unexpected ways and begin acting differently, "but we have not seen that yet."
  • More study: A consortium of UK scientists has begun using gene sequencing to look for emerging mutations, which should eventually provide a better picture of what's going on, per Reuters.
  • Keeping track: A comprehensive story at CNET recounts the various drug trials currently in progress, including the first one to begin dosing patients in Seattle. The page will be updated as more drugs and potential treatments are added.
(Read more coronavirus stories.)

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