Coronavirus Has Small Mutations and Now Has 8 Strains, Doctors Say

(New York Daily News/TNS) -
This transmission electron microscope shows the COVID-19 virus isolated from a patient in the U.S., emerging from the surface of cells cultured in the lab. (NIAID/TNS)

The novel coronavirus is mutating, as viruses do, and eight strains are now making the rounds globally, medical experts say.

The good news is that the mutations are not more lethal, said Trevor Bedford, whose website, NextStrain.org, is tracking the virus’s genome from samples provided to him from throughout the world. But they are informative.

Researchers are dissecting the genomes of coronavirus and discovering the strains that have emerged since the virus first jumped from animals to humans in a Wuhan, China, wildlife market late last year. The work “shows how the virus is migrating and splitting into similar but new subtypes,” as USA Today explained.

“In the literal sense of ‘is it changing genetically,’ the answer is absolutely yes,” Harvard University infectious disease epidemiologist Marc Lipsitch told NPR. “What is in question is whether there’s been any change that’s important to the course of disease or the transmissibility or other things that we as humans care about.”

The strains emerging are only slightly tweaked, with no variations in lethality, experts said.

“The observed rate of mutation (about two mutations per month) is completely normal for a virus,” Bedford wrote on Twitter. “Flu and the common cold have similar mutation rates. Even a bit faster for flu.”

While the genomes retrieved so far are providing reassuring information about how the virus can be stopped and whether social distancing is working — indications are that it is — they do not provide more than a sketch, the experts said.

Scientists agree that there is much more to be discovered. But the microscopic changes are helping them map the pathogen’s pathway through the human population.

“The outbreaks are trackable,” Charles Chiu, a professor of medicine and infectious disease at the University of California, San Francisco School of Medicine, told USA Today. “We have the ability to do genomic sequencing almost in real-time to see what strains or lineages are circulating.”