The chief scientist of the World Health Organization (WHO), Soumya Swaminathan, on January 12, 2020 in Geneva.
FABRIC COFFRINI | AFP via Getty Images
World Health Organization officials said Monday that the coronavirus is mutating “much more slowly” than seasonal influenza, although officials in the UK announced earlier this weekend that a new mutation in the virus will allow the virus to spread more easily.
Seasonal influenza mutates so often that scientists have to regularly develop new vaccines to vaccinate the population against the virus each year. British officials have told WHO that the Covid-19 vaccines appear to be just as effective against the new strain, but more research is needed. While all viruses mutate naturally, not every mutation makes a virus more contagious or virulent.
“SARS-CoV-2 mutates much more slowly than influenza,” said WHO chief scientist Soumya Swaminathan at a press conference. “And while we have seen a number of changes and mutations so far, none have a significant impact on the susceptibility of the virus to any of the therapeutics, drugs or vaccines currently in use.” and it is hoped that this will continue to be the case. “
WHO officials reiterated that UK officials have said the new variant could be up to 70% more transmissible than the original strain of the virus. Dr. Mike Ryan, executive director of the WHO health program, said it was unclear whether the increase in the spread in the UK was due to the mutation or human behavior.
“We saw an estimate of a small increase in the number of reproductions in the UK,” he said, which means the virus is spreading faster, which could mean it is more contagious or easier to spread in colder months. It could also mean people are becoming careless when it comes to following public health protocols. “It remains to be seen how much of this is due to the specific genetic change in the new variant. I suspect some.”
Maria Van Kerkhove, WHO director of Emerging Diseases and Zoonosis, said British officials estimate the mutation increased the virus’ reproductive rate from 1.1 to 1.5. This means that each person infected with the variant is estimated to infect another 1.5 people, compared to 1.1 if infected with the original variant.
She added that officials are investigating three elements of the new variant. She said scientists are studying whether it spreads more easily, whether it causes more or less serious illness, and how the antibody reacts to infection. Van Kerkhove and others emphasized that there seems to be no influence on the effectiveness of the Covid vaccines with the new variant.