What are virus mutations, and what do they mean? Just like other viruses, COVID mutates all the time. Andy explains what mutation is, how it happens, and the importance of monitoring it.
"What we need to capture in these surveillance efforts is how these viruses are changing and how quickly they are changing. So you've heard of mutations, and they are a result of these changes in the viruses. They change the nucleic acid or the DNA sequence of the virus itself and that changes the infectivity or the severity of the disease itself. So we monitor these viruses to see how the DNA sequences are changing and whether these changes pose any more threat to the population in terms of infectivity or the severity of the disease."
The uniqueness of COVID-19. Coronaviruses have been around for decades. But, COVID symptoms are considerably more severe than those of other coronavirus infections. Kamini shares her viewpoint on the uniqueness of COVID. "I think what is unique about COVID is just the level of population spread. It creates this reservoir for the virus to mutate much faster because initially, when COVID came out, we thought it mutated much slower than the influenza virus. But over time, we've seen it pick up speed and momentum, and it's changing more rapidly."
Viruses mutate constantly. Mutations are a regular part of every virus's life cycle, but we need to monitor them to identify variants of concern. Andy explains, "The virus is evolving, and all viruses constantly evolve, and they spin up new variants. Whether those variants rise to what Kamini described as a variant of concern depends on exactly what changes happen in the DNA sequence. But variants of interest and other variants that have no effect on what we are concerned about — which is the health outcome of being infected — happen all the time."
Andy explains, "It seems like we are going into a phase where we’ll probably need to have annual vaccinations based on the rate the virus is changing. It's likely that new strains or new variants of concern are going to arise. We know that certain populations who are immunocompromised can generate lots of variants very quickly, and they might get out into the population and cause us to rethink the current virus strategies."
Kamini says, "We've been involved right from the beginning. So in January of 2020, when we heard about the first coronavirus, we mobilized very quickly in China to help the teams there — with providing qPCR instruments and working on our first COVID-19 TaqPath assay. And this was when there were less than 50 sequences, and USAID and WHO had not even classified it as a virus that we needed to worry about.
We already kind of knew that there was something brewing, and we ended up getting our EUA on our TaqPath COVID tests in March. We were one of the first job providers to get it. And I feel very proud because we've enabled over a billion tests worldwide in the last two years, which is phenomenal, considering where and how the teams have had to work in order to scale up to provide this value to the customers."
Kamini explains, "I think opportunities like that and collaborations like this are the key to driving insights, as well as helping the broader community through better health outcomes. Most of the lay people now actually understand what an infectious disease is, what testing means, and what PCR is — which was not the norm two years back. Every consumer is getting savvy, so theywant to see what's happening in their community and what's happening in the world around them. And I think we're getting there as far as creating these ecosystems of partnerships."
Kamini says, "I think it's the consumerization of these tests that’s definitely going to be a trend. And, if you could do it easily in the lab, I think adjusting it to getting more data insights and connecting with public health entities globally — there's going to be a trend and shift in all of those areas just because the world is that much smarter."
Andy adds, "The fact that you can now test yourself at home for one of these infectious diseases means that there are likely to be a lot more of those kinds of tests, and we're going to get a much better picture of what is actually happening in the population around these respiratory viruses or other kinds of viruses and diseases."