Virus mutations and variants like omicron: How and why they mutate

Viruses need hosts to survive

FILE - This 2020 electron microscope image provided by the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases - Rocky Mountain Laboratories shows SARS-CoV-2 virus particles which cause COVID-19, isolated from a patient in the U.S., emerging from the surface of cells cultured in a lab. Viruses are constantly mutating, with coronavirus variants circulating around the globe. (NIAID-RML via AP) (Uncredited)

A look at how viruses mutate, how variants come about, and what we can do about it. (Originally published in the Morning Report Newsletter)


There are so many articles out there about the omicron variant, I thought we’d take some time today to talk about virus mutations and how it all works. I hope it’s informative and helpful.

🦠 Virus mutations and COVID variants -- What to know

By now, I’m sure you’ve heard of the newly discovered COVID-19 variant, named omicron, first reported in South Africa but cases are popping up all over the world.

We don’t know enough about the new variant to make any big decisions -- or to tweak existing vaccines -- but we should find out more this week. In the meantime, countries, including the U.S., are stopping travel from some countries and preparing for potential trouble. Dr. Fauci said over the weekend that he expects the variant is already in the U.S. right now.

EXPLAINER: What we know and don’t know on new COVID variant

So let’s talk about virus mutations. I love science, and viruses are truly fascinating. Viruses are have been around forever -- seriously, way before humans -- and they are actually part of our DNA. Around half of the human genome is made up of millions of DNA sequences that can be traced back to long-dead viruses or similar “jumping genes,” known collectively as transposable elements or transposons.

We will likely be hearing about COVID variants for a while -- some may be more dangerous than others, or some may spread faster -- some may just fade into oblivion, or be over-taken by another variant. We have similar issues with the flu every year, but the flu is not as deadly as COVID-19 -- and we know much more about the flu.

Viruses have to mutate in order to survive. We can eliminate, or limit, them with vaccines. But viruses are not living things -- they need a host (us) to survive. The more hosts they can find (unvaccinated people), the more likely they can mutate and become, in some cases, more dangerous to us, and more vaccine elusive.

When a virus is widely circulating in a population and causing many infections, the likelihood of the virus mutating increases. The more opportunities a virus has to spread, the more it replicates – and the more opportunities it has to undergo changes.

🦠 How does a virus mutate?

Here’s what the Cleveland Clinic says: Viruses mutate constantly. This is especially true of viruses that contain RNA as their genetic material, such as coronaviruses and influenza viruses.

All viruses are made up of a bundle of genetic material (either DNA or RNA) that’s covered by a protective coating of proteins. Once a virus gets into your body – usually through your mouth or nose – it latches onto one of your cells. The virus’s DNA or RNA then enters your cell, where it can make copies of itself that go off and infect other cells. If the virus can copy itself and hijack enough of your cells without being wiped out by your immune system, that’s how you get sick.

Every now and then, an error occurs during the virus’s copying process. That’s a mutation.

Most of the time, mutations are so small that they don’t significantly affect how the virus works, or they make the virus weaker, microbiologist and pathologist Daniel Rhoads, MD says. But occasionally, a mutation helps the virus copy itself or get into our cells more easily.

“If these advantageous genetic mistakes are included when the virus replicates, they’re passed on and eventually become part of the virus’s normal genome,” Dr. Rhoads explains. We can see these mutations accumulate over time, and that’s how we get new variants of a virus strain.

🦠 How does WHO decide what to name variants?

Back in May, the World Health Org. announced a new format for naming COVID-19 variants, using a system through the Greek alphabet. WHO will assign labels for those variants that are designated as Variants of Interest or Variants of Concern by WHO. These are posted on the WHO website.

“These labels do not replace existing scientific names, which convey important scientific information and will continue to be used in research.

While they have their advantages, these scientific names can be difficult to say and recall, and are prone to misreporting. As a result, people often resort to calling variants by the places where they are detected, which is stigmatizing and discriminatory. To avoid this and to simplify public communications, WHO encourages national authorities, media outlets and others to adopt these new labels.”

How can we prevent future new variants of the COVID-19 virus?

Here’s what WHO says: Stopping the spread at the source remains key. Current measures to reduce transmission – including frequent hand washing, wearing a mask, physical distancing, good ventilation and avoiding crowded places or closed settings – continue to work against new variants by reducing the amount of viral transmission and therefore also reducing opportunities for the virus to mutate. Scaling up vaccine manufacturing and rolling out vaccines as quickly and widely as possible will also be critical ways of protecting people before they are exposed to the virus and the risk of new variants.

Yes, vaccinated people can get infected from a virus, but the chances of a virus taking hold in a vaccinated person is much less likely than in an unvaccinated person. Vaccinated (or people that have natural immunity vs. a similar strain) people have an existing defense system to limit damage.

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Anyway, right now we don’t know the full scope of what omicron means for the world. But it surely won’t be the last variant we have to deal with, not by a long shot.

The best thing you can do is get vaccinated -- and if you’re six months out from your second shot, get a booster. It’s the best way to protect yourself and your family -- and help limit future variant breakouts.


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About the Author:

Ken Haddad is the digital content and audience manager for WDIV / ClickOnDetroit.com. He also authors the Morning Report Newsletter and various other newsletters. He's been with WDIV since 2013. He enjoys suffering through Lions games on Sundays in the fall.