Scientists studying the coronavirus have some good news: as it is transmitted through the human population, it is not undergoing significant mutations, meaning it will not become more dangerous as it spreads, and once a vaccine is developed, it could be as effective as vaccines for measles or chickenpox are. Peter Thielen, a molecular geneticist at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory who is one of the scientists examining the virus, told The Washington Post,, “I would expect a vaccine for coronavirus would have a similar profile to those vaccines. It’s great news.”
Virologists Stanley Perlman of the University of Iowa and Benjamin Neuman of Texas A&M University at Texarkana agreed; Perlman stated, “The virus has not mutated to any significant extent,” while Neuman echoed, “Just one ‘pretty bad’ strain for everybody so far. If it’s still around in a year, by that point we might have some diversity … 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. 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.”
Scientists are examining novel pathogen’s genetic code, as the Post reported, writing, “All viruses evolve over time, accumulating mutations as they replicate imperfectly inside a host’s cells in tremendous numbers and then spread through a population, with some of those mutations persisting through natural selection. The new coronavirus has proofreading machinery, however, and that reduces the ‘error rate’ and the pace of mutation.”
Thielen said more than 1,000 samples of COVID-19 are being studied, adding there are between four to 10 genetic differences between the strains in America and the original virus in the Chinese city of Wuhan. He commented, “That’s a relatively small number of mutations for having passed through a large number of people. 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 concluded, “So far, we don’t have any evidence linking a specific virus [strain] to any disease severity score. Right now, disease severity is much more likely to be driven by other factors.”
TIME reported on Monday:
Last week, the first volunteers in a study of an experimental COVID-19 vaccine received their first doses, and the vaccine’s developer, Moderna Therapeutics, is already thinking ahead. Although testing on the vaccine will take at least a year to complete, the work could provide valuable information about how the immune system can fight coronaviruses and could give scientists a head start if any new outbreaks of the virus were to occur.
Two scientists at Johns Hopkins University, Tzyy-Choou and Chien-Fu Hung, were quoted over the weekend saying, “We started working on a new coronavirus vaccine a month ago. We are testing one version of our vaccine on mice and should have initial results within weeks. We are ready to test another version in mice, and results from that should take one month. It can take a year to a year and a half for a vaccine to be available for human trials.”