Health and Science

NIH doesn't expect the coronavirus to rapidly mutate like the seasonal flu

An engineer shows a plastic model of the Covid-19 coronavirus at the Quality Control Laboratory at the Sinovac Biotech facilities in Beijing.
Nicolas Asfouri | AFP | Getty Images

The coronavirus that's brought global economies to a near standstill has already mutated several times, but a top NIH official said it doesn't appear to change as quickly as the seasonal flu.

"We don't think it will have this very rapid seasonal change that we have to deal with influenza, which means last year's vaccine is maybe not the one you want this year," Dr. Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health, said Thursday during a hearing about coronavirus testing before the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions. 

A recent study from researchers at the Los Alamos National Laboratory said the coronavirus has mutated at least 14 times since it emerged four months ago and a new, dominant strain spreading across the U.S. and other parts of the world appears to be even more contagious than it once was.

If the coronavirus is mutating at a slower pace than the seasonal flu, that would be good news for scientists across the globe who are working on more than 100 potential vaccines to fight Covid-19.

U.S. health officials have warned that they are preparing to battle two bad viruses circulating at the same time as the coronavirus outbreak runs into flu season next fall and winter.

Covid-19 is "not going to disappear from the planet," White House health advisor Dr. Anthony Fauci said last month, adding infectious disease experts are learning about how the virus behaves by watching emerging outbreaks in other regions such as southern Africa that are starting to enter their colder seasons.

There's a lot of scientists still don't know about the virus, Collins said Thursday, including whether people can get reinfected after they recover and how long antibodies provide immunity.

"I think at the present time to be able to evaluate the meaning of a positive antibody test, one should be quite cautious," Collins said. 

He also said the U.S. plans to make millions of "accurate and easy-to-use" coronavirus tests by the end of the summer and even more before flu season as states ease social distancing measures and Americans head back to work.

"I must tell you, senators, this is a stretch goal that goes beyond what most experts think will be possible," Collins said.

"I have encountered some stunned expressions when describing these goals and this timetable to knowledgeable individuals. The scientific and logistical challenges are truly daunting," he said, adding he's optimistic.