Worries that the coronavirus might mutate to become even more infectious and deadly are understandable — but mostly unwarranted. It’s true that viruses tend to mutate as they spread across the world over time. And it’s also true that those mutations have the potential to give viruses new, perhaps harmful, traits. But fortunately, the likelihood of that actually happening is extremely slim, according to science.
Pop culture did a bad job of portraying mutation in a virus by overblowing the consequences. In the 2003 post-apocalyptic horror film 28 Days Later, for example, a “mutated” Ebola virus wreaks havoc on society. In reality, mutation “is a humdrum aspect of life for an RNA virus,” writes Nathan D. Grubaugh, assistant professor in the Department of Epidemiology of Microbial Diseases at the Yale Institute for Global Health, in a letter in the journal Nature Microbiology in February. SARS-CoV-2 is considered an RNA virus because its genetic material is RNA, not DNA. He is urging both scientists and the general public not to speculate about the potential effects of mutation. Misinformation, he warns in an article for CNN, may “turn out to be as costly as the disease.”
“It probably wouldn’t change anything at all because by the time we can confirm what any particular mutation is doing, the pandemic will likely be over.”
To understand why you shouldn’t worry about the virus mutating, look at how mutations occur in the first place. Every time a virus self-replicates, it first needs to make a copy of its genome. The machinery it uses to make those copies, however — an enzyme called RNA polymerase — often makes errors during the copying process. The resulting copy of the virus’s genome tends to contain random typos, which we know as mutations. But not all mutations will have a meaningful effect on the virus and the course of a pandemic.
Some mutations have no effect whatsoever and are known as “neutral mutations.” They can be passed along over many generations and cause no change in a virus’s ability to survive or cause infection. Most…