As the global infection count surges for a seventh consecutive week, after initial optimism that the pandemic had peaked, leading virologists have told The Independent that the world is caught in an “arms race” between the evolution of the virus and the human response.
Although the vaccines offer hope in suppressing the pathogen, more needs to be done to ensure the rapid and equitable distribution of doses – otherwise new variants will be allowed to emerge which could spark major future outbreaks, the experts said.
“I think it’d be a brave person to say that the virus is nearing the end of its evolutionary route and can’t go any further,” said Professor Deenan Pillay, a virologist at University College London.
“We’re still early on in the life time of this virus as a human pathogen. It normally takes many years for viruses, once they cross the species barrier, to really optimise themselves to be able to replicate well within humans.”
Aris Katzourakis, a professor of evolution and genomics at the University of Oxford, said even if there were set limits to how far the virus can mutate – as some scientists believe – “there’s always change somewhere else [in the genome] that might unlock possibilities that were previously not seen”.