There are now at least eight different strains of the coronavirus circling the globe, say scientists who are tracking the mutations in real-time to see exactly how the deadly virus is spreading.
As the New York Post reported, researchers are working rapidly to study the genetic sequences of the viruses connected to the original coronavirus outbreak and keeping maps of the changes. This has helped them to determine exactly who the virus is spreading, though they noted that no one strain is more harmful than any other.
"These mutations are completely benign and useful as a puzzle piece to uncover how the virus is spreading," said Trevor Bedford, co-founder of the open database NextStrain which is being used to track the spread of the virus.
As National Geographic noted, this research shows researchers exactly how the virus spreads from one country and one community to the next. It has also been used to help determine the origin of the virus, tracing it back to SARS strains found in wild animals in China, primarily bats and pangolins. This has helped to quash conspiracy theories that it was created in a lab as a biological weapon
"As menacing as the word sounds, mutations don't mean the virus is becoming more harmful," the report noted.
"Instead, these subtle shifts in the virus's genetic code are helping researchers quickly figure out where it's been, as well as dispel myths about its origins."This data will ultimately tell scientists when community transmission has become widespread throughout a region and whether lockdown measures were able to keep it in check, the New York Post noted. Researchers acknowledged that with the virus mutating roughly every two weeks, it is difficult for them to keep track of every possible mutation, but the sequencing taking place gives them the best idea of how it is moving.
Just a few weeks ago, scientists had discovered that there were at least two major strains of the coronavirus, which showed to them that more strains were likely forming.
Whatever the number of strains, health experts have said that lockdown and intense social distancing efforts may need to be in place for several more weeks or months in order to effectively slow the spread of the virus so that medical systems do not become overwhelmed. Others predict that some level of social distancing may need to remain in place until a vaccine is created, which could be anywhere between 12 and 18 months away.