Coronavirus' low mutation rate suggests yearly vaccine unnecessary

The new coronavirus does not appear to be mutating quickly, which may mean that when a vaccine is developed, it could offer lasting protection, scientists told The Washington Post.

Viruses evolve and accumulate mutations, as they replicate inside host cells in large numbers imperfectly and then spread among a population. Some of those mutations persist. But the new coronavirus appears to have machinery that reduces the rate of mutation, and the virus looks very similar everywhere it has appeared, the Post reports. This suggests there are no strains that are deadlier than others, unlike with other viral infections, such as influenza.

According to Peter Thielen, a molecular geneticist at the Baltimore-based Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory, scientists are examining more than 1,000 samples of the virus and have found only four to 10 genetic differences between strains of the virus seen in the U.S. and those that appeared in China.

"That's a relatively small number of mutations for having passed through a large number of people," Mr. Thielen told the Post.

The number of mutations suggests that a vaccine developed to prevent the virus would be a single vaccine with a long-lasting effect, as opposed to the flu vaccine, which needs to be developed every year.

Other virologists also told the Post that the virus has not mutated significantly.

"Just one 'pretty bad' strain for everybody so far," Benjamin Neuman, associate professor and head of biology at Texas A&M University at Texarkana told the Post. "If it's still around in a year, by that point we might have some diversity."

The race to create a vaccine is on, but it will take at least a year or 18 months for one to be developed and available for use.


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