Researchers believe the coronavirus is mutating, and it may be evolving to become more contagious.
That's the conclusion of a study done by scientists at Houston Methodist Hospital, Weill Cornell Medicine, the University of Chicago, Argonne National Laboratory and the University of Texas at Austin, which was published Wednesday on the preprint server MedRxiv. Read on, and to ensure your health and the health of others, don't miss these Sure Signs You've Already Had Coronavirus.
The virus is now more transmissible
The scientists analyzed 5,000 genetic sequences of coronavirus. They found it has undergone several mutations, and one of them—a small chemical change in an amino acid named 614—might make it more transmissible.
The virus doesn't seem to be evolving to become more deadly or to cause more severe cases of COVID-19, but virus mutations tend to raise health officials' eyebrows.
David Morens, a virologist at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, read the study and told the Washington Post that it strongly suggests the virus has changed to become easier to transmit from one person to the next. That "may have implications for our ability to control it," he said.
While urging caution against over-interpreting the results of a single study, Morens said the virus might be mutating in response to current preventative measures like mask-wearing and social distancing.
"Wearing masks, washing our hands, all those things are barriers to transmissibility or contagion, but as the virus becomes more contagious it statistically is better at getting around those barriers," said Morens, who is a senior adviser to Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation's top infectious-disease expert.
How do you know if you have it? "Patients with that strain of coronavirus carried more virus particles than other people, meaning they were probably more infectious, the study found," reports Forbes. "Researchers say the rise of this contagious strain of the virus may have driven up the infection rate in the Houston area, which jumped from an average of around 200 new Covid-19 cases per day to more than 2,400."
So if you take precautions but catch COVID-19 this fall or winter anyway, it could be due to a new strain. It could also be because the virus is extremely contagious in its original form. Only time—and more genetic sequencing—will tell.
'Evolve or die' applies to viruses too
All viruses evolve, mutating to survive whatever modern medicine throws at them. That includes other coronaviruses, such as those that cause the common cold and the seasonal flu. The latter mutates so regularly that a new flu vaccine must be developed each year to respond to the latest variant.
That might be what's in store with the coronavirus, Morens told the Post.
"Although we don't know yet, it is well within the realm of possibility that this coronavirus, when our population-level immunity gets high enough, this coronavirus will find a way to get around our immunity," he said. "If that happened, we'd be in the same situation as with flu. We'll have to chase the virus and, as it mutates, we'll have to tinker with our vaccine."
How to stay healthy
As for yourself, do everything you can to prevent getting—and spreading—COVID-19 in the first place: Wear your face mask, get tested if you think you have coronavirus, avoid crowds (and bars, and house parties), practice social distancing, only run essential errands, wash your hands regularly, disinfect frequently touched surfaces, and to get through this pandemic at your healthiest, don't miss these 35 Places You're Most Likely to Catch COVID.