How Do Variants Arise? Mu Variant, With Potential to Evade Vaccines, Found in All 50 States

The Mu variant of COVID has been detected in every U.S. state after a sample was reported in Nebraska.

The variant, which was first seen in January this year, has made headlines since being declared a variant of interest (VOI) by the World Health Organization (WHO) on August 30.

The concern about Mu is that scientists have identified mutations in its genome that could make it resistant to vaccines. One preliminary lab-based study has suggested it may be more vaccine-resistant than the other known variants.

But Mu has yet to properly take hold in the U.S., according to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) data.

The data shows that, in the week ending September 4, it was the Delta variant that accounted for nearly all COVID samples sequenced in the U.S.—around 99 percent of them. Mu, on the other hand, accounted for just 0.1 percent.

According to Outbreak.Info, which uses data from the GISAID virus reporting network, 5,659 Mu variant sequences have been detected worldwide. Of those, 2,436 were detected in the U.S.

While it may be alarming to hear about new variants, it is normal for viruses to change and evolve over time. It's the same reason a new flu vaccine is needed every year—because the virus mutates from one flu season to the next.

Not all virus mutations are the same, though, and not all of them are necessarily good for the virus. They happen at random, and most are nothing for us to worry about.

Dr Francesca Beaudoin, interim chair of epidemiology at the Brown School of Public Health, told Newsweek earlier this month: "Viruses mutate or change themselves at random, all the time.

Virus May Become Less Infectious

"Most mutations are inconsequential or make the virus less infectious and hence why they fizzle out. Other mutations may make the virus have certain advantages that make it more likely to spread and cause illness."

The viruses that end up with these advantages may end up out-competing the others due to being able to spread faster or being harder to kill via vaccines or natural immunity. The Delta variant, for example, has the advantage of being very transmissible and it is also known to pose some resistance to vaccines.

COVID variants can be expected to emerge for as long as the virus is able to spread between people. For this reason, the CDC states that the best way to slow the emergence of new variants is to reduce the spread of infection, such as by getting a vaccine.

COVID sample
Lab workers bag a biological sample at a COVID testing site in Dubai in April 2020. The Mu variant of COVID has been detected all across the U.S. Karim Sahib/AFP / Getty