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Potential coronavirus mutations impacting infection rate and vaccines

A blood test for coronavirus. (AP Photo/Ariana Cubillos)

It turns out that the July coronavirus might not be the April version, and coronavirus mutations play a major role in infection rates and potential vaccines. How will that impact us? Mercer Island MD Dr. Gordon Cohen joined Seattle’s Morning News to discuss.

“So there was a study that was published in the journal Cell … it’s found that there’s really strong evidence that a new form of the coronavirus has spread from Europe to the United States. What’s interesting about this mutation is that it makes the virus more likely to infect people. But it doesn’t seem to make them any sicker than earlier variations of the virus,” he said.

“That’s potentially why we’re seeing this huge increase in the number of people who are getting sick. But maybe it’s not quite as deadly, though we don’t know that yet … and that’s why mortality rate isn’t really going up; if anything it might be going down a little bit.”

While some of that may be promising, is the virus still morphing and could this outlook change?

“Viruses always morph. That’s one of the challenges in creating vaccines is that they’re always morphing. Usually, when we make vaccines, we tend to focus oftentimes on what’s called the spike protein. That’s the structure that the virus uses to get into cells that it infects,” he said.

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“So these researchers were checking to see whether this affects whether the virus can controlled by vaccines, because the ones that are currently being tested, mostly target spike proteins. But they were made using older strains of the virus.”

Dr. Cohen says developing a vaccine for COVID-19 is especially difficult because there’s never been a vaccine to any type of coronavirus.

“There’s never been a vaccine to a coronavirus … half the common colds are caused by coronaviruses, and clearly our bodies are able to mount an immune response because we fight off the cold. But what happens? The following year we get the cold again,” he said.

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“It’s not as though the immune response to a coronavirus is all that strong, because coronaviruses have this incredible ability to mutate, we may not even have immunity for the following year. This is why, for example, with the flu vaccine we’re constantly changing and updating it every year because it also has an incredible ability to morph. So we have to be able to try and stay ahead of it.”

Listen to Seattle’s Morning News weekday mornings from 5 – 9 a.m. on KIRO Radio, 97.3 FM. Subscribe to the podcast here.

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