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Fact Check: Has coronavirus (COVID-19) been mutating?

Yes, but that's not a bad thing

DETROIT – Since the beginning of the outbreak, scientists have known the genetic sequence of COVID-19, but over time, researchers have seen it change, giving rise to the theory coronavirus is mutating.

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A virus has two main objectives -- it needs to infect a cell and hijack it to make copies of itself, so it can infect other cells and repeat the cycle. While the newly hijacked cell is making parts to build new viruses, it’s also copying the virus’ genetic code and that’s where mutations can occur.

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The RNA genetic code for SARS-CoV-2 is 30,000 base pairs long. After copying it countless times, switches and changes can occur. There is a proofreader protein that catches most of the typos but some make it through and become a permanent part of the new instruction manual in a newly made virus that goes on to spread. All of these typos are a mutation -- a lasting change in the virus. Mutations are so common that we expect them to occur.

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These mutations usually have no effect on the function of the virus. It would be like changing a word in a book on page 47 from pen to car -- it wouldn’t make sense and would largely be ignored, but occasionally a change or mutation is important. For example, changing the word “wasn’t” to “was” on page 53 changes the meaning of the paragraph, like changing the structure or function of a protein. That mutation could be a problem if allows the virus to spread faster, kill more easily or makes it more difficult for us to find with the tests we’ve developed, but it could also be a benefit if it damages the virus. This subtle evolution of a virus over a long time can allow it to find a sweet spot where it can maximally spread without being so dangerous that it kills its host before spreading.

Is coronavirus mutating?

As far as the existence of mutation, this it True on the Trust Index, but it has to be kept in perspective. Fortunately, SARS-CoV-2 appears to change very slowly and sustained mutations do not occur frequently. In fact, it’s estimated that notable new changes occur at a rate of about 2 per month, which is actually pretty minimal.

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