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‘COVID-19 may mutate in different times, geographies’20 May 2020

Virus gained ability to transmit from one person to another with mutation by settling in another host, say doctors

Although the novel coronavirus originated from one source, it may mutate at different times and in different geographies while spreading among people, according to a Turkish expert on infectious diseases. 

"Coronaviruses are known as viruses that mutate quickly. These mutations do not change the general characteristics of the virus and cause just minor differences [in structure]," Alpay Azap, a professor of infectious diseases and clinical microbiology at Ankara University in the Turkish capital, and a member of the Coronavirus Scientific Advisory Board, told Anadolu Agency.

However, this new type of coronavirus is "little more stable," he said, adding it is a virus that "does not change easily."

Azap recalled that although hundreds of thousands of people became infected with the virus within the first few months as it spread, it has mutated very little since then.

 

- Transformation of virus

"Bats are the real source of the coronavirus. The virus in bats infected other animals -- mammals or reptiles -- which we call intermediate hosts," he said.

He highlighted that the virus transformed while moving around in an intermediate host, and as a result of contact between an intermediate host and a human, the virus "learned" to attach to human cells and cause disease.

As the infection cases in people rose, he added, in the next stage, the virus "learned" to pass from one person to another, and while the animals no longer matter, the virus quickly started circulating among the people.

Azap said this cycle, which doctors have also seen in the flu virus, seemed to have worked similarly in the case of COVID-19.

 

- Viruses tend to mutate

Yesim Tasova, a professor in the infectious diseases department at Cukurova University in Turkey’s southern Adana province, said that all microorganisms, especially viruses, tend to mutate.

"In fact, this is their struggle for survival," she said. 

Many factors can cause mutations, such as a suitable environment, or an environment that forces viruses to mutate to keep their existence, Tasova said, adding there may also be a situation that doctors call self-mutation, which is seen in the case of HIV, the virus which "constantly mutates."

 

- Not a new virus among humans

The professor said the virus is the mutated state of the coronavirus that was causing disease in animals.

"This agent, which is very similar to the virus in bats, has gained the ability to be transmitted from one person to another with its mutation by settling in another animal host. Some of the viruses in this family were already causing illness in humans."

She underlined that doctors already know of other coronaviruses which are 10%-30% of the reason for the common cold people have every year, adding the human immune system "was familiar" with them.

"But in this case, our immune system does not recognize this new type virus at all. Therefore, our immune system cannot develop any defense.”

Unlike the other viruses, Tasova said, the infection can settle in the lower and upper respiratory tract and cause pneumonia, noting that in some cases, especially in elderly people and people of all ages who are in the risky group, the picture gets worse as it causes acute respiratory distress syndrome.

Due to the effect on the lower respiratory tract, the virus causes fever in 95% of cases, dry cough in 70% of patients and mild or severe respiratory distress in around 40%-50% of cases, she added. 

 

- Antibodies against the virus 

People who recover from the novel coronavirus outbreak will have antibodies against the virus, Tasova said, noting that it remains to be seen how long they will last.

"Of course, if the virus mutates, there will be a risk of getting sick again for those who already faced the disease."

She went on to say that the virus of flu is the best example in this case, as it "mutates gradually" every year, which results in "big" mutations in 5-10 years. 

"For this reason, the antibodies formed against the flu you had the previous year may not be able to fully protect you against the flu you will have this year," she said.

"However, recovered patients’ potential to be a carrier is not expected." 

Tasova said that more clear picture on these matters could be seen in the future. 

She stressed that the outbreak has been an important experience for the whole world. 

"From now on, we have to prepare our outbreak plans earlier and expand our work on possible scenarios. This pandemic showed us the importance of scientific studies and investments in this field," she said. 

The pandemic also showed that Turkish health personnel are ready for every situation and every task, Tasova said.

As of Tuesday, Turkey reported a total of 151,615 coronavirus cases, including 4,199 deaths and 112,895 recoveries.

After originating in Wuhan, China last December, COVID-19 has spread to at least 188 countries and regions, with Europe and the US currently the worst hit.

The pandemic has killed more than 323,400 people worldwide, with more than 4.9 million confirmed cases and nearly 1.7 million recoveries, according to figures compiled by Johns Hopkins University of the US.


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