Fact Check: Do Genetic Changes Mean the Virus Is 'Not COVID-19 Any More'?

This week the Omicron sub-type BA.2 became dominant in the U.S., demonstrating that more than two years into the pandemic, SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID, continues to evolve and spread.

The spread of new variants means it is easier for people to catch COVID twice. One of those people was U.S. billionaire Elon Musk.

The Claim

On March 28th, Tesla and SpaceX CEO Elon Musk tweeted that he "supposedly" has COVID after having caught it once before in 2020.

Musk stated that SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID, is "the virus of Theseus"—a reference to the philosophical thought experiment called the Ship of Theseus, which asks whether an object can still be considered the same object if all of its components are replaced.

He also asked: "How many gene changes before it's not COVID-19 anymore?"

The Facts

So is SARS-COV-2 really the "virus of Theseus?"

Sarah Otto is an evolutionary biologist at the University of British Columbia in Canada. She told Newsweek that viruses "can evolve to the point where they are distinct enough that they are called not just a variant but an entirely new strain or disease-causing agent."

"To some extent, Omicron is causing a substantially different disease than previous SARS-COV-2 variants," she said. "If Omicron hadn't emerged during the COVID-19 pandemic, we might be tempted to call it a different disease."

The challenge, she said, was knowing at what point a virus should be referred to as a different virus altogether or just another variant. "In the end, labels are what are useful to us. By calling Omicron a 'variant of COVID-19', we understand it better."

Nicola Stonehouse is a professor of molecular virology at the University of Leeds in the U.K. She told Newsweek that in order for a variant of SARS-CoV-2 to be classified as a completely different virus, there would need to be no cross-protection against it.

"This would mean that previous infection and/or vaccination would give no protection at all," Stonehouse said. "I think we are a long way from this position, fortunately!"

Andrew Rambaut is professor of molecular evolution at the University of Edinburgh. He said the naming of viruses is indeed based on thresholds of genetic differences, but doesn't account for the fact that viruses evolve quickly.

"For example HIV-1 is hugely more diverse globally now than it was when it was first sequenced in the 80s," Rambaut told Newsweek. "If it was discovered now and characterised it would probably be split into lots of different groups."

"SARS-CoV-2 will be defined as the virus first characterised in late 2019 and all descendants irrespective of how much divergence occurs."

"It may be that it diverges into two or more co-circulating lineages and these could be given names, like the influenza B virus' Yamagata and Victoria lineages."

He did note some exemptions, however. One would be if SARS-CoV-2 were to combine with another type of circulating coronavirus, in which case "that would likely be given a new name."

Another possibility would be the emergence of another virus from the same animal reservoir that possibly spawned SARS-CoV-2. This, Rambaut said, would "probably be called SARS-CoV-3."

The Ruling

Fact Check - Half True

Half True.

Experts have said that it is hypothetically possible for a virus—including SARS-COV-2—to evolve so much that it can no longer be considered the same virus it once was. But, scientists say, that is not the case with COVID right now.

FACT CHECK BY NEWSWEEK

Covid Virus and Elon Musk
Left: A stock photo of an illustration of coronavirus cells. Right: Elon Musk seen talking at an event in Washington, D.C., in March, 2020. Musk recently tweeted that has he caught COVID for the second time. Getty