Virus Mutation | What Is It and How Fast Can It Happen?

If there's one reason why viruses like the common cold are so difficult to deal with, it's because they change over time. Let's look at how viruses work and why they're so prone to mutating

What Is a Virus? 

Viruses are tiny, single-celled organisms. There are two types of viruses:

  • DNA viruses
  • RNA viruses

They're all essentially bundles of genetic material wrapped up in a protein coating, and they're very clever. 

When a virus encounters a host, such as a cell inside the human body, it latches on to the cell's outer membrane. Once it's attached to the host cell, the virus replicates using the host cell's own genetic machinery. In other words, viruses are like parasites — they rely on other organisms for their own survival. 

Common viruses include:

  • Influenza
  • Meningitis
  • Polio
  • Common cold
  • COVID-19

So, how do viruses move between people?

How Do Viruses Spread? 

Viruses spread in a number of ways. The most common ways that viruses are spread are when you:

  • Cough or sneeze without covering your mouth and nose
  • Share unwashed utensils with a sick person
  • Touch contaminated surfaces, such as door handles, cell phones and used tissues
  • Are in close contact with infected individuals  
  • Forget to wash or sanitise your hands before eating or drinking 

When viruses spread, they sometimes change in a process known as virus mutation. Let's take a look at how it works. 

What Is Virus Mutation? 

Virus mutation is a natural part of a virus's life cycle. It happens because it's the only way for a virus to survive in the long term. Why? Because host organisms remember past encounters with certain viruses and learn how to fight them off. If the virus doesn't learn to adapt and evolve, it'll die out completely.  

Viruses change by:

  • Swapping out parts of their genetic material (recombination)
  • Changing their genetic sequence (random mutation) 

Once a virus mutates, or changes its genetic sequence, it can reinfect the same person and spread again. That's why there are so many strains of colds and flu — just because you get the flu once doesn't mean you won't get it again!

So, if viruses change over time, do they all mutate at the same rate? The short answer is no. Here's why.

How Quickly Do Viruses Change? 

Some viruses mutate quicker than others — it all depends on the virus type

  • DNA viruses, such as smallpoxmutate very slowly, and they're easily controlled by vaccines
  • RNA viruses, such as the flu and COVID-19, mutate rapidly because they multiply very quickly — a single virus can produce up to 10 million viruses within 24 hours

The quicker a virus multiplies, the more likely that natural mutations will arise and new versions of the virus will pass to other people. There's no short answer to how quickly a virus mutates, though. It all depends on natural selection and random processes.

One question remains: What does virus mutation mean for vaccines?

Can We Still Vaccinate Against Mutating RNA Viruses? 

Yes, we can. That's why we have vaccines for RNA viruses like the flu. Although RNA viruses mutate much quickerthan DNA viruses, the process still takes months and years. 

There's one problem, though. A single vaccine doesn't last forever. For example, one flu shot can protect you against that particular year's seasonal flu strains, but it won't protect you from the strains to come

What Will Happen to COVID-19?

COVID-19 is still a new virus, which means that mutations are inevitable. The good news is that viruses rarely mutate into deadlier strains — in fact, many mutations are actually weaker than the original virus! 

So, what does this mean for COVID-19? Let's summarise what we know so far.

What we know is that we're already seeing possible mutations emerging in East Asia, the United Kingdom, France and Italy. Even though early evidence suggests that some strains may be more aggressive than the original virus — in other words, they are more infectious — there's no evidence that any strain is deadlier than the other. As of now, the strains seem relatively similar. 

It's impossible to say how COVID-19 will change over time, but right now, scientists are still very hopeful about finding a vaccine

About Your Sanitiser 

No matter how often a virus mutates, you can stop its spread by washing your hands with soap and water, or by rubbing your hands with sanitiser like Your Sanitiser. To find out more about Your Sanitiser and how it can protect you from viruses like COVID-19, click here