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Why do viruses mutate?

Medical experts say mutations to the coronavirus shouldn't be a major concern.

ATLANTA — ATLANTA – The coronavirus has changed since arriving in the United States, but medical experts say it’s not a reason for added concern.

Viruses typically mutate over time. Changes are more likely harming the coronavirus rather than making it stronger.

Why?

In order to spread, any virus has to replicate itself and it often makes mistakes.

“Viruses mutate all the time,” says Dr. Jose Cordero of the University of Georgia’s College of Public Health. “The best way to explain it is that it’s part of evolution.”

Dr. Karen Levy of the Rollins School of Public Health at Emory University says to think of it like writing a sentence on a blackboard over and over. Eventually, you might leave out a comma that changes the meaning slightly.

It happens every year with the flu.

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“Every year we have to reformulate the flu vaccine because the flu virus is constantly changing,” says Dr. Levy.

Medical experts say changes in the coronavirus have been much slower than mutations in the flu.

“You can have very small changes,” says Levy. “80-90% of the changes in a virus are actually bad for the virus.”

While the mutations are routine, health experts say it’s important to study them.

“How do we approach emerging infections and have an early warning system?” says Cordero.

This virus more than any other has taught us to expect change.

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