Coronavirus: “intelligent” mutants

Adaptation of SARS-CoV-2 virus to the immune system not purely random

25 February 2021 / Research shows that the emergence of mutations in SARS-CoV-2 are not purely random. Rather, the virus has repair and adaptation mechanisms in its genome that can accelerate the occurrence of particularly dangerous mutations. In the light of these findings, it appears that the most effective strategies to combat the pandemic are those that aim to achieve the lowest possible incidence rates.

Similarly to other corona viruses, SARS-CoV-2 has ‘learnt’ during the course of evolution to adapt more efficiently to its host than if this were a purely random process: overall, the virus appears to have a lower mutation rate than might be expected statistically. The reason for this are proteins which ‘proofread’ the correct composition of the genome (RNA) during replication and repair it if need be. Without these control mechanisms, too many mutations could strongly impact replication and infectiousness of the virus.

On the other hand, the mutation rate at specific sites on the virus RNA can be much higher. These regions are mostly relevant for the human immune response. When the virus interacts with the immune system it appears to ‘learn’ how to evade it. There are specific patterns of gene deletions in the Sars-CoV-2 genome which enable it to rapidly acquire genetic and antigenic novelty.

Systems capable of solving problems with a higher rate of success than might be expected with random processes, can indeed be called ‘intelligent’, even if the virus is not actually ‘thinking’ or ‘planning’.

Against this backdrop, strategies based on the maximum possible reduction of the virus incidence rate and the establishment of ‘green’ virus-free zones appear to be the best way forward. Such strategies can also be supported by vaccines. However, to solely rely on the ongoing development and improvement of vaccines could mean continuing to underestimate the true potential of SARS-CoV-2.

Christoph Then,, Tel + 49 (0) 151 54638040