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Breaking up COVID

There’s progress against Covid-19 in many different modes – stopping the virus from entering our cells, selectively killing infected cells, and breaking up the virus inside our cells.

The drug molnupiravir developed by Merck, a chemical and pharmaceutical giant company, uses that third way. The drug is certified to treat hospitalized patients with severe Covid. It causes the virus to mutate extensively. Enough mutations in the right places and the viruses can’t replicate; they “die,” to use an expression that’s informal, since viruses aren’t alive, being just replicating machines. Most mutations are neutral or damaging, whether in viruses or humans or any living organism. Some very rare mutations can be beneficial to an organism or a virus, at the cost of losing many failed cases. That’s the rub.

Theo Sanderson at the Francis Crick Institute in London and his colleagues found signatures in the viral DNA that got out in the open, as it were, linked to the use of molnupiravir. One may propose that a tiny fraction of SARS-Cov-2 viruses in a patient are sheltered from the most massive mutational action. A tiny fraction of these can get mutations that favor them, creating new strains of the virus that escape the hospital and escape our vaccines and preventive measures. Molnupiravir is a two-edged sword.

This has been an outreach activity of the Las Cruces Academy, viewable at GreatSchools.org.

Vince grew up in the Chicago suburb of Berwyn. He has enjoyed a long career in science, starting in chemistry and physics and moving through plant physiology, ecology, remote sensing, and agronomy.
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