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Munson Minutes | Viruses: Variants and Mutations

Published on Jul. 05, 2021

In this episode, Munson Healthcare's Nick Torney, PharmD, BCIDP, Infectious Diseases, is here to define what a virus is and help us understand why viruses constantly mutate into variant versions.

A few key points covered in this short Q&A:

  • How do virus variants and mutations form?
  • Why do virus variants seem to spread faster than the original virus?
  • How are the COVID-19 vaccines holding up against these new virus strains?

Viruses: Variants and Mutations

What Is a Virus?

A virus is essentially genetic material that’s encoded or wrapped around a protein coat. But a virus needs a host cell to survive. A virus simply cannot survive outside of a host cell.

How Does a Virus Infect a Host?

A virus infects a host cell by binding to that host cell and then moving its genetic material into the cell. The virus essentially hijacks our cells into making more virus. Our cells have all the machinery necessary to do that and the virus buds off our cells and replicates in that manner.

What Is a Virus Variant?

A virus variant is created when a virus has a very small mutation in its genetic material. This happens when the virus mutates multiple times every minute and those mutations occur on a regular basis.

What Happens When a Virus Mutates?

Essentially what's happening is a virus replicates thousands of times a minute with small changes in its DNA, RNA, or genetic material. When that happens that’s essentially a change in the virus blueprint. When that blueprint changes, it can either cause a virus that is more transmissible or causes a more severe disease. Or even a virus that causes less severe disease or doesn’t transmit altogether.

Why Do the Mutated COVID-19 Strains Seem to Be More Transmissible?

When a virus mutates and takes a majority population in a cell, it’s because that mutation offers some benefit to the virus to transmit more rapidly, replicate quicker, and to have a greater fitness over the wild-type virus.

How Do Vaccines Work with Virus Variants?

Vaccines work with variants because scientists try to design the vaccine to work against a unique portion of the virus that is unlikely to have significant change if a mutation were to occur. The current COVID-19 vaccines are holding up fairly well against the common variants. And again, the scientists that develop those vaccines develop them to target a protein called the spike protein that is unlikely to be modified or changed with variants.

The antibody immune response seen with some of those vaccines towards some of the variants out there is a little bit lower, but the vaccination is most certainly helping prevent severe illness even from some of those variant COVID-19 viruses.

Thank you all for tuning in to this episode. We’ll see you next time!

Questions? Ask a Nurse

Please call our Munson Healthcare Ask-a-Nurse team to discuss any of your health or COVID-19 vaccine questions. We’re here for you 24 hours a day at 231-935-0951. More FAQs are also available here:

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