CLEVELAND, Ohio — While doctors have found different strains of the novel coronavirus, until now doctors have believed they aren’t that different.
It seems like good news, if the coronavirus in Italy is pretty similar to the one you could catch in China, or the United States, or Australia. Doctors theorized that once you’re immune to one, you’re likely immune to them all.
But new research in Australia and Taiwan has found one strain that has changed the mechanism the virus uses to bind the virus to human cells, according to news reports. And that could render all current vaccine research futile.
The research looked at an outlier strain from a medical student in Wuhan, China, according to the Science Times. In the research released Saturday, researchers wrote, “the observation of this study raised the alarm that Sars-CoV-2 mutation with varied epitope [something an antibody attaches itself to] profile could arise at any time. This means current vaccine development against Sars-CoV-2 is at great risk of becoming futile.”
The findings still need verification, since outside factors may have influenced the mutation of the strain. Researchers said a technical error could have happened. The study has not been peer-reviewed.
On Wednesday morning Dr. Frank Esper, a pediatric infectious disease specialist at Cleveland Clinic Children’s Hospital, said in an email that random, small coronavirus mutations are to be expected. He said researchers can factor these mutations in when formulating vaccines. Moreover, he does not expect the coronavirus to mutate as wildly as other viruses, such as the flu. Influenza changes so quickly, scientists must reformulate the vaccine annually. The coronavirus appears to be much more stable than other viruses like the flu or HIV.
“I have not reviewed that study although from the article it has not been peer-reviewed,” Esper said. “Again, we expect random mutations to happen. We definitely take new mutations into account when we develop vaccines and watch out for any that would impair the vaccine effectiveness. It is like a game of tennis sometimes, especially for high mutation viruses like influenza. The virus changes, we change the vaccine, the virus changes again, we change the vaccine again, etc. We do not expect nearly as much changes from this coronavirus.”
On Tuesday, Esper spoke about the majority of the coronavirus strains studied so far. Doctors believe there are three main strains.
“There really isn’t a substantial variation between the different viruses that are causing this pandemic across the world, compared to when you’re talking about different strains of let’s say influenza,” Esper said.
Because the coronavirus hasn’t seemed to mutate much, at least for now, doctors theorize that a coronavirus vaccine could be good for two or three years, as opposed to the flu vaccine, which is reformulated annually due to mutations in the virus. It also means that the virus could be less likely to become resistant to future drugs developed to treat it. Researchers continue to study the issue.
The coronavirus doesn’t change that much as it spreads because it has a so-called proofreader on an enzyme that checks its work as it replicates, to make sure there aren’t any mistakes. If it did make a mistake it can fix it.
In contrast, the flu and HIV don’t double check their work as they make copies of themselves. These slacker viruses make lots of mistakes, mutating widely. They create headaches for doctors, because they change so much. HIV may become resistant to one drug as the virus mutates. The flu changes so much the vaccine has to be changed every year.
Esper relates the differences in the viruses to his “two teenage sons at home; one of them writes their report a week ahead of time, and then make sure that everything is right, the other one just does it the night before and doesn’t even read it through before he hands it in.”
The coronavirus, for now, has no serious reason to mutate, doctors say. It’s spreading easily between person to person. But when if a vaccine or drug is developed and as more people develop an immunity, that immunity will likely put more pressure on the virus to change.
The changes the virus has made allows doctors to pinpoint where each strain came from and understand the spread better.
About 3,000 of viruses’ genomes have been analyzed around the world. The Cleveland Clinic will soon be analyzing samples in Ohio to understand answer questions like: Are healthcare workers contracting the coronavirus from hospitals or their communities? How much of the spread is being caused by asymptomatic carriers of the disease? Are children spreading the disease to their families, or is it the other way around? Studies like these are going on around the world.
At the Clinic, Esper and his colleagues are looking to answer the question, “Who’s giving it to who, so that we can better understand how this thing is spreading throughout a community.”
They will be able to look to see where most Ohio cases came from. And though doctors have yet to find any evidence that one strain is more severe, or benign than another, the Clinic will also examine this question in its study.