Discover more from Not a Doctor
Is the coronavirus mutating?
And does that make it more contagious?
Welcome to Not a Doctor, the only newsletter about health and science that sadly deletes X-Men puns.
I’m Melody Schreiber, a journalist and the editor of What We Didn’t Expect. I’m not a doctor, or a scientist, or really an expert of any kind. I just like to ask questions and try to find the answers to them.
Today we’re talking about MUTANTS!
🌡 🌡 🌡
How do viruses mutate, and what does that mean for us?
*types, then deletes, several Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle and X-Men puns*
You may have seen a few headlines about how the coronavirus is mutating. It’s becoming stronger, faster, more efficient!
Or is it?
Here’s the thing: all viruses mutate. The second they hook into your receptors, they start replicating in a hurry, and like anyone doing anything in a hurry, they make a few mistakes here and there. Whoops, forgot to copy that genetic sequence! Mondays, amirite?!
Those little mistakes are usually no big deal; they often don’t make any difference, and sometimes they actually make the virus less effective. It’s not all that likely that a virus would mutate to become even worse than it is. And coronaviruses don’t really mutate all that much to begin with.
Even so, there was a flurry of headlines earlier this week about how the coronavirus is mutating to become more contagious. But this news was based on misinterpretations around a poorly named preprint study — research that hasn’t been peer reviewed by other publications or published in a journal.
Anyone can post a preprint; I could right now, if I felt like creating an account and uploading something just to prove a point. Preprints can be really wonderful ways for scientists to stay informed about what other researchers are finding, and it can help the researchers to refine their own work.
What they’re not intended for: journalists and the general public drawing conclusions (and panicking).
🌡 🌡 🌡
For instance, an article in the Los Angeles Times concluded from this preprint that the virus is becoming more contagious. But there’s not actually any support in the study for this claim, beyond the title calling it “more transmissible” (in other words, more contagious).
The researchers looked at a mutation that was transmitted quite a bit — but that just means the virus got around; it doesn’t mean it’s more contagious. Basically, the virus with the mutation probably just got lucky.
Crucially, the researchers did not test whether this mutation infects cells more effectively or severely, which is what they would need to do to determine whether it’s actually more contagious or not.
There have also been plenty of rumors flying around about different strains of the virus. But virologists agree: there seems to be only one known strain of SARS-CoV-2. It’s mutated a bit here and there, but it’s still the same virus we already knew (and didn’t love).
While it’s important to keep tracking scientific advancements, we also have to be careful that misinterpretations like these don’t fuel faulty policies and bad logic.
The fact of the matter is, SARS-CoV-2 already sucks. Yes, it’s possible it will undergo some changes to make it a little more efficient at totally sucking, but we don’t need some study to tell us that this virus is bad news.
It’s claiming thousands of lives, and it must be stopped. That’s what we need to focus on. Staying as safe as possible, trying to save as many lives as we can, and holding our leaders accountable for the decisions they are making in this crisis.
🌡 🌡 🌡
As always, please leave a comment or email me with questions and feedback at firstname.lastname@example.org. I love hearing from readers!
If you liked this post, don’t forget to hit the little heart right below these words. And if you know someone who might appreciate this newsletter, please forward it to them!