Virus mutants multiply as scientists race to decode variations

The flood of new genome data is so great that the Los Alamos lab had to upgrade its servers to deal with the incoming data. Meanwhile, Korber is on four Zoom calls a week with experts worldwide to devise criteria for deciding when mutations are concerning enough to merit detailed laboratory follow-up on how they may impact vaccines.

A key mystery plumbed early-on by top scientists has been what type of virus the coronavirus will prove to be. So far, it looks more similar to influenza, which shape-shifts all the time and requires annual revaccination, than it does measles, a virus so intolerant of mutation that one vaccine regimen lasts a lifetime…

While the virus continues to evolve in the short term, one of the most hopeful scenarios is that it may run out of big moves it can make to evade antibodies that make the current vaccines work. Under this scenario, there may be a practical limit to how much the virus can mutate and remain fit to invade our cells.

The spike protein must retain a shape that allows it to efficiently latch to its human receptor, according to Shane Crotty, a researcher at the La Jolla Institute for Immunology.

“There is not an infinite number of possibilities,” he said. “It is like putting your foot in a shoe. It still has to be basically the right shape and size and it still has to be recognizable as a shoe.”