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Are You Ready For Some Good News About The Coronavirus Pandemic?

COVID-19 is not mutating quickly. That makes finding an effective vaccine easier.

It seems that the last few weeks have brought a relentless drumbeat of bad news as COVID-19 spread through the country, infecting tens of thousands and killing hundreds. The outbreak led to a nationwide stay-at-home recommendation, sparked a panic that led to store shelves bare of food and toilet paper, and led to a stock market rout. For weeks now, there have been very few bright spots, but now there is a definite piece of encouraging news coming from medical researchers: The Coronavirus is not mutating.

The Washington Post reports that scientists studying COVID-19 say that the virus is not making significant changes as it spreads around the world. Per the researchers, the virus has internal proofreading systems that reduce the error rate as it duplicates itself. Fewer errors mean fewer mutations.

The Coronavirus looks pretty much the same everywhere it has appeared, the scientists say. Even though there is more than one strain of the virus, there is almost no difference in the danger and death rate between different versions.

Earlier this month, there were reports that Chinese researchers had discovered a second strain of the COVID-19 virus. While L-type and S-type strains have been identified, New Scientist reported that there were only tiny differences between the two. The second strain may have emerged as the virus adapted to life in its new human hosts.

“In all practical terms, the virus is as it was when it originally emerged,” said Ian Jones, a virologist at the UK’s University of Reading. “There’s no evidence it is getting any worse.”

The news that Coronavirus is not mutating is good for two reasons. First, it means that when a vaccine is developed, it may be good for life. If, like chickenpox and measles, COVID-19 doesn’t change frequently, one vaccination could last indefinitely and be very effective.

On the other hand, if the virus had been found to mutate rapidly, like the flu virus, researchers could have ended up chasing a moving target with the vaccine. The flu virus mutates almost constantly requiring annual updates to the vaccine. Vaccine developers must make educated guesses as to what the dominant strain will be each year. As a result, flu vaccines are only about 40-60 percent effective. A 50-percent effective vaccine for the much-more-dangerous Coronavirus would represent a longterm problem for humanity.

The second reason that the lack of mutations is encouraging is that, if the virus changed rapidly, it could become much more lethal in a short time. In the 1918 flu pandemic, the flu virus that initially swept the world didn’t do the most serious damage. It was a second, mutated strain in the fall of 1918 that was especially deadly. Thankfully, this possibility now seems unlikely in the current pandemic.

The other important lesson of the 1918 flu was the need for quarantines. Despite being called the “Spanish flu,” the virus apparently originated in the United States in March 1918 and spread around the world as American soldiers carried it with them on their way to war. Similar to Chinese obfuscations and lies about COVID-19, the US and British governments covered up the American outbreak at the time in the name of national security. Together with secrecy, the need for civilian workers to keep factories open to support the war effort prevented the widespread use of lockdowns and quarantines until it was too late. A third wave of the 1918 flu in the winter of 1919-20 was just as deadly as the second but less disastrous because fewer troops were being shuttled around the country and local governments started quarantining outbreaks.

The good news from the Coronavirus fight is that the virus is stable and not mutating. That will make finding an effective vaccine easier and quicker. More good news is that much of the country has adopted the right strategy of limiting social interactions to slow the spread of the virus. The bad news is that victory over the virus is going to take a while and behaviors will have to change in the meantime.

As Winston Churchill said in 1942, “Now this is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.”

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