Viral mutation is a natural part of the lifespan of a new virus. Dramatic headlines of impending doom are often historically unwarranted, yet such headlines continue as little more than ill-informed discussion of a natural process that does not necessarily have a negative impact.
What is the purpose of these headlines? Are they designed to scare people?
There are many reasons for increasing fears about natural viral mutation, ranging from public policy control to securing governmental funds for a purported solution. Viruses naturally seek to replicate; if they kill the host, they cannot survive. Thus, they tend to mutate into less virulent strains to extend their lifespan.
We must not conflate transmissibility with virulence, which is the actual level of danger.
The two are often confused, and lead to hysterical headlines regarding mutation. Generally, they have an inversely proportional relationship; viral mutations to higher transmissibility tend to become less virulent. A virus can change to spread more easily; however, this does not mean that it becomes more lethal. This simple fact can help to deflate the fear from much of the variant discussion.
Looking at the table, (fig 1), there are multiple mutations of SARS-CoV-2; however, all of the chatter about them causing harm is just that—noise. Evidence shows that our own T-cell recognition from previous viral infections is enough to combat these “scariants”. The most important metric to consider with variants is the daily mortality rate (fig 2). While the media typically focuses on cases which induces fear, the mortality rate is what determines virulence. It is true that case numbers spike as the virus becomes more transmissible, but if the lethality drops, it is clear that the neutralizing effect of T-cells within the population, as well as the lessening lethality of the virus, is causing the overall danger to shrink, not to increase. For instance, the common cold is very transmissible but not at all lethal.
With increasing COVID mutations and variants, that is exactly what we see: the daily mortality has dropped, including countries with the most reported variant prevalence.
Mutations are not indicative of outlandish viral characteristics or devastation. The prevalent variant B I 1.7, for example, falls under the classification of “Variant of Concern” (VOC) as it is rapidly taking over original variants. As frightening as this might sound, recovering patients of previous variants showed no significant pathology after B I 1.7 exposure.
The bottom line is, with proven T-cell recognition and evidence of mortality drop, fearful headlines about mutations and variants are misleading. An accurate understanding of the science gives us both optimism about the future and the confidence to move forward safely and effectively.