As an increasing portion of the global population continues to receive the COVID vaccine, public health experts, government officials, and healthcare professionals continue to monitor variants emerging around the world. With recent spikes of infections in India that have brought devastating death tolls and an overwhelmed healthcare system, it is clear that reaching the “end” of COVID and moving forward into a sense of normalcy will not be a straightforward process.
What are mutations?
Mutations are tiny errors in our genome sequencing, and are often drivers within evolution (Carlin, 2011). As a child I was occasionally naughty, and as punishment I recall having to write lines. I would have to write and repeat whatever words were deemed necessary for me to learn my lesson and change my behavior. However, as I wrote the lines, slight changes in my handwriting occurred on a word here or a letter there. Though the message remained the same, these accidental small changes caused some lines to look different.
All viruses evolve and change over time. This allows a virus to not only survive, but thrive (Tajouri, 2020). Just like my handwriting, these changes, or mutations, happen accidentally and cause the virus’s genome sequence to look different. When a virus undergoes one or two mutations, this is called a “variant.” Occasionally, the virus will mutate in such a way that the virus can copy itself more efficiently or enter our cells more easily (Cleveland Clinic, 2021). With more than 141 million infections worldwide at the time of this publication—a number that continues to climb—the virus has ample opportunity to mutate.
Current COVID mutations
Currently, there are many different versions, or variants, of COVID circulating. As with any virus, most variants come and go; others persist but don’t spread widely among the population. However, several prominent variants present themselves and gain notoriety, and eventually cause concern.
It is important in any discussion of variants of this virus to make clear that while variants are referred to as “the U.K. strain” or “South African variant,” the actual origin of any given mutation is difficult to prove, and individual countries should not be blamed for variants bearing their name (Ellyatt, 2021).