Viruses persist through mutations, or changes in their makeup and how they attack other organisms. It is for this reason that researchers and health professionals across the globe continuously gather and reevaluate information, looking for clues that might indicate a needed change on how they combat them. Whenever a virus “updates” itself in this way, it is referred to as a different “strain,” as in the new strains of the novel coronavirus that develops into COVID-19.
These new strains are still COVID-19, but there has been enough of a change in their makeup that different medicines and procedures might be required to counter their effects. In many cases, the changes only affect one aspect of the virus and may not impact the required treatment or vaccine. As in the case of the new strain first discovered in the United Kingdom (named B.1.1.7), the obvious change researchers have discovered is that this particular strain spreads faster; but current data hasn’t shown it to cause more severe illness or risk of death. After the initial discovery, this strain has now been detected in many countries including the United States and Canada.
The variant or strain labeled 1.351 was first discovered in South Africa in October 2020, and though researchers believe it evolved independently from the UK variant, it shares some of that strain’s mutation. This variant has been detected outside of South Africa but has not been detected in the United States at this point. Another variant (P.1) was discovered during a routine screening at Haneda airport outside Tokyo, Japan. Four travelers from Brazil were tested, and the strain discovered contained additional mutations that might affect it being recognized by antibodies. All this information and more is available from the CDC at cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/transmission/variant-cases.html.
Functionally what this indicates is that while health care workers and researchers at attempting to combat COVID-19 and its effects, the virus itself is mutating and making those efforts more difficult every day.
The development of vaccines can be seen as a major and definitive step forward, but the sheer volume of people who could be infected before widespread vaccination makes personal and community precautions all the more important. Limiting the spread of the virus also limits the volume of the virus, and it could be said that fewer mutations are possible if the virus’ volume is limited. If it does not exist, it cannot mutate. More directly important is the fact that if the spread is prevented or limited, then the possibility of the development of a mutation is reduced.
It is important to remember how viruses operate. A virus infects a host through a range of possible transmissions, and then begins to replicate itself immediately by feeding off the host. This replication causes negative effects and, in some cases, death, depending upon the virus in question. While the virus is replicating, it “learns” about its host, making its replication more effective, and then through mutation, can make the virus resistant to the host’s attempt to counter it.
Viruses can also develop resistance to medicine developed to eliminate them. It is for this reason that medical professionals stress to patients to take every dose of a prescribed medication, even if the symptoms seemed to have passed. There is the possibility that the surviving percentage of the virus has “learned” from the incomplete round of treatment and can change to make subsequent treatments less effective for not only the same person, but also others to whom the “smarter” virus might be transmitted.
In short, viruses in general use the body’s own resources against it in order to survive, and the best defense against a virus is not to come into contact with it. This becomes increasingly more difficult as newer strains develop that transmit more quickly. The best protection currently is still the wearing of face masks, sanitizing surfaces, frequently washing hands with soap and water for at least 20 seconds and limiting social gatherings. This will limit both the spread and the “learning curve” of the virus itself.
Widespread vaccinations will in time bring COVID-19 under control, scientist believe. The term “herd Immunity” has been used as a goal to reach, but that is not a goal that is quickly achieved. According to Houston Methodist (houstonmethodist.org), herd immunity would require between 70% and 90% of the population (up to 248 million people in the U.S.) to be vaccinated. Currently only 3%, around 11 million people, have received the first shot of a dual-shot vaccine (apnews.com).
The best protection is still the protection each individual can personally regulate for themselves and others. Continuing to do so will also help reduce the strain on local hospitals and help to ensure that all individuals requiring treatment will be able to receive it. Scheduling a vaccination when it is available to you will also limit the spread of COVID-19 and reduce the available breeding ground for the disease.