[New COVID] mutations are popping up in increasingly complicated patterns, spurring a drive by top biologists to devise new ways to track a fire hose of incoming genomic data.
The goal: Quickly detect variants that can lessen the effectiveness of vaccines for a pathogen that’s unlikely to be eradicated any time soon. The SARS-CoV-2 virus could settle down and become a mere nuisance like the common cold. Or much like influenza, it could retain its ability to cause severe disease in some segments of the population, a scenario that could require regular booster shots.
For one thing, mRNA vaccines for Covid-19 have efficacy rates above 90%, much higher than the 60% rate for flu shots in a good year. But vaccine makers Moderna and Pfizer, along with its partner BioNTech, aren’t taking any chances. Just in case, they’re already starting trials of booster shots aimed at B.1.351.
What makes SARS-CoV-2’s future so hard to predict is that viral evolution is like a three dimensional chess game. It’s not just the individual mutations that matter, but also the order and combinations in which they occur.