“Genome mutation” is probably one of those words you’ve heard a total of three times (or less) in your life. You vaguely know it has something to do with biology but never really bothered to know more.
Good news! In this post, you’ll get to learn what these two words mean. More importantly, we’ll explore the concept of genome mutation in relation to COVID-19 and how it might be a good or bad thing in the fight to contain the virus and develop a cure or a vaccine for it.
What’s a Genome?
The technical definition of a genome is “the haploid set of chromosomes in a gamete or micro-organism, or in each cell of a multicellular organism”. To break that down, it simply means that every living organism- could be human beings, animals, lizards, or, in this case, a virus (COVID-19), is made up of tiny units called cells, and these cells contain molecules that carry the structural information.
For humans, the genome is a collection of DNA, while in viruses, it is RNA. This RNA in viruses is reverse-studied by scientists to understand the nature of viruses.
How about Mutation?
Mutations are alterations in genetic materials- the genome in this case- that can alter the molecular structure of the organism and change its fundamental attributes. For viruses, mutations are a part of the evolutionary process, and it’s a way by which they survive in harsh environments, changing their features to align with prevalent conditions.
For example, you might know that seasonal flu currently has no known vaccine. The reason is that the flu virus evolves really fast (more than 50 times a year). Any vaccine developed for a current strain gets obsolete within 2 months or less, so there’s no point expending all the effort and resources meant for that.
How about the Coronavirus
Just like any other virus, the Coronavirus has a genome as well and has been shown by researchers to mutate too. Now to the main question, is genome mutation helpful with COVID-19? Well, there’s a yes and a no to this answer.
Yes. And this is because COVID-19 has been discovered to not mutate as fast as the seasonal flu (less than 25 times a year). Also, keep in mind that the Coronavirus is twice as virulent as the seasonal flu virus.
When the size is factored in as well, the mutation speed becomes four times slower than that of the seasonal flu. This is helpful because any vaccine developed will be valid for a relatively longer time than those for the seasonal flu.
However, genome mutation presents a problem in treatment and outbreak containment. An example is how different symptoms continue to show up in relation to the virus. This makes it potentially difficult for healthcare providers to identify infected patients prior to testing and take appropriate isolation and decontamination procedures.
As scientists continue to track the virus’ evolution, we can only hope they find cures and vaccines that can keep up with the various mutations.