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Scientists say the coronavirus is not mutating quickly and might respond to a single vaccine

The Hill logo The Hill 4 days ago Zack Budryk
Scientists say the coronavirus is not mutating quickly and might respond to a single vaccine © The Hill Scientists say the coronavirus is not mutating quickly and might respond to a single vaccine

Scientists studying the novel coronavirus' genetic code say it does not appear to be mutating quickly, suggesting any vaccine developed for it will likely remain effective in the long term.

Peter Thielen, a molecular geneticist at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory, told The Washington Post that the strains of the virus infecting people in the U.S. have only about four to 10 genetic variations between the strain that emerged in Wuhan, China.

"That's a relatively small number of mutations for having passed through a large number of people," he told the newspaper. "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 the eventual vaccine to those used for illnesses such as chickenpox or measles, which generally immunize patients long-term.

In contrast, "flu does have one trick up its sleeve that coronaviruses do not have - the flu virus genome is broken up into several segments, each of which codes for a gene," Stanley Perlman of the University of Iowa told The Post. "When two flu viruses are in the same cell, they can swap some segments, potentially creating a new combination instantly - this is how the H1N1 'swine' flu originated."

Small viral mutations leading to outsized effects in clinical outcomes are not unheard of, the experts said, but there has been no indication of such an outcome for coronavirus thus far, with death rates in places such as Italy likely the result of situational factors rather than mutations.

"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."

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