Concerning new variants can develop in people infected with COVID-19

NOW: Concerning new variants can develop in people infected with COVID-19

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MILWAUKEE (CBS 58) -- Concerning new coronavirus variants originating in the U.K., South Africa and Brazil, which are more contagious, don’t have to come from other countries. Doctors say the viruses could evolve inside your body if you have COVID-19.

While it’s a scary thought, if you have the COVID-19 virus in your body, doctors say it’s possible that the virus can mutate into something stronger right in your own home during infection.

The idea that someone would -- you know -- start with one strain of COVID-19, then if you tested them later or looked, they would have something different, you know, that wouldn’t be out of the question,” said Dr. Jeff Pothof, chief quality officer at UW Health.

One study published in the New England Journal of Medicine, determined a 45-year-old immunocompromised man’s battle with COVID-19 in a span of five months showed just that. The same COVID-19 virus replicated and evolved in the patient’s body during infection, eventually causing immune weakness and death.

“RNA like the COVID virus, it does not have a spellchecker, so when there’s a typo—it just stays, and these are the mutations,” adds Dr. Pothof.

The mutations could do one of three things. Either have no effect, weaken the virus or strengthen the virus, which could make it more contagious, likely to cause severe disease or give it the ability to escape immune systems.

“These are mutations that we worry about the most,” Dr. Pothof says. “These mutations, which are really spelling mistakes as the virus tries to replicate, that actually are virus serendipity, they actually make the virus stronger.”

Dr. Pothof says that’s probably how the three new variants from the U.K., South Africa and Brazil developed.

“It started with one person who had the disease, they had the normal disease -- then there was a spelling mistake when that virus replicated in their body, but it made the virus easier to catch,” said Dr. Pothof.

“We need to do everything we can to reduce circulation of the virus with proven public health measures,” said World Health Organization Director-General, Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus on Monday, Feb. 8.

So how do you stop mutations from happening? Doctors say it’s back to the basics with masking, distancing and hand hygiene. Stopping the mutations will also help to keep vaccines more effective.

"We know viruses mutate and we know we have to be ready to adapt vaccines so they remain effective,” adds Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus.

“You need less people worldwide to be getting COVID-19, because every time it infects a new person, it gets another opportunity to replicate,” says Dr. Pothof.

While it is concerning, Dr. Pothof says most virus mutations are small and they don’t do anything. He says the COVID-19 virus is also a slow mutator when compared to other viruses.

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