All viruses mutate over time as they travel from person to person. COVID-19 is no different, with gradual mutations emerging as more transmissible and potentially more deadly strains first found in the U.K., Brazil, South Africa, and elsewhere.
But the variant first found in the U.K. may have actually emerged all at once, mutating 17 times over while inside one person suffering a chronic COVID-19 infection, a new hypothesis suggests. That shocking idea has scientists scrambling to figure out how chronic infections might breed more variants — and how to stop them, Wired reports.
The B.1.1.7. variant was first identified back in September, and it quickly became clear that it was responsible for skyrocketing new infections in and around London. It's estimated to be at least 50 percent more transmissible than the original strain has since been found in more than 50 countries, including the U.S. And it caught scientists by surprise: "Sars-CoV-2 is a genetic slowpoke," Wired writes, and most of its slow mutations usually don't become noticeable even if they do make it beyond their host. So while it's possible B.1.1.7. mutated outside the U.K. in a place that doesn't pay close attention to mutations, the mutation's spread in the months since suggest it came out of one person.
It's clear scientists need to find out just how people with weakened immune systems provide COVID-19 with a perfect host for mutation. But the biggest problem right now is the rampant spread of the virus, and how that will allow even more mutations to pop up. Sharon Peacock, director of the COVID-19 Genomics U.K. consortium, warned BBC that we can only "stop worrying about" the coronavirus once it mutates beyond being infectious. "But I think, looking in the future, we're going to be doing this for years. We're still going to be doing this 10 years down the line, in my view."