What is a Mutation, a Strain and Now a Variant of Covid?
The word “mutation” according to Stedman’s Medical Dictionary is, “A sudden structural change within a gene or chromosome of an organism resulting in the creation of a new character or trait not found in the parental [original] type. The process by which such a sudden structural change occurs, either through an alteration in the nucleotide sequence of the DNA coding for a gene or through a change in the physical arrangement of a chromosome.” During the pandemic we have experienced “mutations” of the SARS-CoV-2 virus that in turn causes by infection the COVID-19 disease. A Coronavirus and COVID-19 are not the same. One is the virus; the other the disease.
Then we have different “strains” with strains defined medically as, “A group of organisms of the same species, having distinctive characteristics, but not usually considered a separate breed or variety.” Strains then can mutate into new variants with varying degrees of being potentially lethal and transmissable.
Now someone in a position of influence has decided “mutation” is not the desired word to describe changes that occur over time in virus forms; therefore a “mutation” will henceforth be known as a “variant.” The medical dictionary defines a “variant” as, “something that differs in form only slightly from something else.” The definition of “slightly different” is the key. While what is different between “variants” can usually be determined, the “why” the new “variant” characteristics occur is generally a mystery.
UPDATE 2/2/21: The BBC News has released an online report by Health Editor Michelle Roberts stating “Experts working with Public Health England found a small number of cases of the UK variant [B.1.1.7] with the E484K mutation … predominately from the South West of England.”
No explanation has been given for the sudden decision to make the word “variant” in and “mutation” out. Could it be because the word “mutation” scares folks who visualize weird space mutant creatures with misshapen bodies and bizarre heads and limbs often accompanied by unique powers not found in normal humans? Star Wars and other space adventure-super hero media formats have created this image of mutants in our minds that makes us fear becoming some form of virus-caused mutant freak. Solution? Change the words from “mutation” to “variant” to calm the masses.
Better to be something new, but just a little bit. Then repeatedly state it is essentially the same SARS-CoV-2 virus form with only a slight variation; it’s now 12:02 instead of 12:01, and the supposition the current COVID-19 vaccine types will probably work on the “variant” virus mutations from UK (B.1.1.7), Brazil and others. Let us hope this is fact and not wishful thinking considering manufacturing costs and distribution complications.
Did you know to date there has never been a 100% effective vaccine for prevention of an RNA virus? Common colds, influenza, Ebola and SARS are all RNA Coronaviruses; just different strains. The most recognizable example is Influenza requiring a changing vaccine ingredient composition each year with 3 or 4 different strains, but still only about 40-50% effective. Now SARS-CoV-2 / COVID-19, according to medical authorities, has already mutated several times into new variants within a year, with no reason or assurances more new variants will not continue to appear. Would these new “variants” with new disease characteristics require any changes to any COVID vaccine(s)? Hopefully not, but a situation similar to influenza annual vaccine review with content changes is probably a more realistic possibility.
Why do RNA viruses mutate? By nature, RNA viruses are not stable and constantly mutate. Fortunately, mutation variants generally change in small ways while often becoming increasingly contagious or the new buzz word, transmissible, but with diminished lethality. Antibodies, disease duration, severity, susceptibility and vaccine side effects are additional factors among others to evaluate in variants. Unfortunately, this is a guess and not always accurate for all variants.
Let us hope the Coronavirus diseases and any mutation variants can be brought under control and our daily life disruption be short in duration. The point is a vaccine related to an RNA virus is unfortunately usually a changing vehicle of ingredients to address almost certain mutation variants. Men and women of all races, ages, genders and geographical locations must have the healthiest immune system possible to enhance and optimize the effectiveness and antibody generation ability of a vaccine.
Make a determined effort to try to keep the immune response normalized to optimize your personal vaccine effectiveness. Use adjuvants that attempt to enhance the vaccines success including quality vitamin D, beta glucan, vitamin C, elderberry extract, zinc and suggestions of your professional health care provider. Continue to wear a mask, wash hands frequently, get adequate sleep and moderate exercise on a continuing basis. Stay hydrated, eat a healthy diet, avoid crowds and keep your faith diligently while trying to minimize stress. Much is still to be learned about all aspects of this pandemic but we will learn, implement and overcome.