Comment on Vital Facts About Covid-19 by James D. Agresti

In Research by Michael Rae

Thank you for your kind words.

Much remains to be seen about the mutations of Covid-19, but the early indications are that it will mutate materially less than the flu, not more. Covid-19 belongs to a genus of viruses called “coronavirus,” which includes the common cold. This genus tends to mutate rapidly, but Covid-19 does not appear to share that trait.

As explained in a March 17th paper in a molecular biology journal that quotes Michael Farzan, co‐chair of the department of immunology and microbiology at Scripps Research:

“This virus is a close cousin of SARS‐CoV, and like SARS‐CoV, it ‘chooses’, meaning has been selected, to move rapidly from host to host before an adaptive immune response emerges,” he explained. “Because of this, and unlike HIV‐1 and Ebolavirus, it keeps its key epitopes exposed, probably so that it can be more efficient at binding the next cell. This makes it very vulnerable to antibody neutralization, and thus it is a relatively easy virus to protect against. I refer to it as ‘stupid’ on a spectrum where HIV, which lives in the face of an active immune system for years, is a ‘genius’.”

Furthermore, as Farzan added, it does not mutate rapidly for an RNA virus because, unusually for this category, it has a proof‐reading function in its polymerase. “In short, a vaccine, and especially a vaccine targeted in part to the receptor‐binding domain of the 2019‐nCoV entry protein, the Spike or S protein, should be effective,” he said. As this protein is protected against mutation, a vaccine would not need regular updates, unlike seasonal influenza vaccines.

Likewise, a February 19th editorial in the British Medical Journal about Covid-19 reports that the “genome data available so far show no unexpected mutation rate or signs of adaptation, so viral factors are unlikely to be contributing to the differences observed between China and the rest of the world.”

Put simply, Covid-19 does not seem to mutate as much as the flu, and thus, it will not take lives regardless of acquired immunity and vaccines. If this proves true in the long run, then the lifetime risk of death from Covid-19 will be considerably lower than common causes of untimely death.

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