The race against the virus that causes Covid-19 has taken a new turn: mutations are appearing rapidly and, the longer it takes to vaccinate the population, the more likely it is that a variant will emerge that can elude tests, treatments and current vaccines.
The coronavirus is gaining genetic diversity, and health authorities say the high rate of new infections is the main cause. Each new infection gives the virus a chance to mutate by copying itself, threatening to undo the progress made so far in controlling the pandemic.
The World Health Organization on Friday called for more efforts to detect new variants. The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) said the new version first identified in Britain could be the dominant one in the country in March. Although it does not generate more serious symptoms, it will cause more hospitalizations and deaths because it spreads much more easily, the CDC said, warning of “a new phase of exponential growth.”
“We’re really taking it very seriously,” Dr. Anthony Fauci, the US government’s top expert on infectious diseases, said on NBC television’s Meet the Press on Saturday.
“We need to do everything we can now to make the transmissions as low as possible,” said Michael Mina, a physician at Harvard University. “The best way to avoid the appearance of mutant variants is to slow down the infections.”
For now, the vaccines appear to remain effective, but there are signs that some of the new mutations could undermine tests for the virus and reduce the effectiveness of antibody drugs as treatment.
“We are in a race against time” because the virus “could run into a mutation” that makes it more dangerous, said Dr. Pardis Sabeti, an evolutionary biologist at the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard.
Young people may be less willing to wear a mask, avoid crowds and take other measures to avoid contagion because the current variant does not appear to cause serious illness, but “in a mutational change, it could,” he warned. Sabeti documented a change in the Ebola virus that made it worse during the 2014 outbreak.