Arizona’s three public universities team up to detect COVID-19 mutations

Feb 5, 2021, 4:55 AM

PHOENIX — Scientists from Arizona’s three public universities are joining forces to analyze test samples to detect dangerous COVID-19 mutations.

“The concern, of course, is you get one of these mutations that take hold and there’s no vaccine that can protect you,” Robert Robbins, president of the University of Arizona, said.

He noted that’s what happened with HIV. There’s no vaccine that prevents infection, only therapeutics.

Mutations of COVID-19 have been occurring with several variants already identified, including one first detected in the United Kingdom that’s believed to be more contagious and deadly.

More than 600 cases of the UK variant have been identified in the United States, including a handful in Arizona. Labs run by Arizona State University helped detect the UK variant in the state last week.

ASU President Michael Crow said COVID-19 mutations are spreading quickly as scientists race to analyze samples for genetic changes.

“If we allow this virus to continue to evolve into the human species at scale, we will get mutations for which there is no defense,” Crow said. “I want that to sink in — mutations for which there is no defense because it has worked its way around everything we can do.”

The vaccines by Pfizer and Moderna authorized for use in the U.S. offer immunity to the UK variant, though they are less effective against another variant discovered in South Africa.

Robbins said a COVID-19 variant from Brazil “has people really concerned” because the vaccines may be even less effective against it. He added for now one of the best tools there is to fight off these variants is to “get as many people vaccinated as soon as possible.”

“The longer we don’t vaccinate people, the virus has a bigger chance to mutate,” he said.

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