“I would expect a similar trend,” said Trevor Bedford, evolutionary biologist at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle. The variant is currently likely to make up less than 1 percent of cases, but it could make up the majority of cases by March.
The variant has 23 mutations compared to the original virus that was discovered in Wuhan, China. Seventeen mutations have occurred since the virus strayed from its youngest ancestor, said Muge Cevik, an infectious disease expert at the University of St Andrews in Scotland and a scientific advisor to the UK government.
The speed at which the virus took on so many changes worries scientists who expected the coronavirus to evolve much more slowly.
Current vaccine candidates should continue to protect people from disease, several experts said. However, the appearance of the new variant, which contains at least one mutation that weakens the body’s immune protection, makes it likely that vaccines will need regular adjustments, much like they do in order to remain effective against the influenza virus.
Scientists still aren’t sure how much more easily the mutant spreads. Initial estimates were around 70 percent higher transferability, but since then the number has been revised to 56 percent and could drop even further, said Dr. Cevik.
But with each new person it infects, the coronavirus also has more chances of mutating and therefore more chances of showing up with mutations that give it an advantage – by making it more transmissible or less susceptible to the immune system, for example.
“When you’ve had enough of huge amounts of viral replications around the world, you’re going to get lots of different varieties,” said Dr. Dan Barouch, a virologist at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston.