Fact Check: Did Coronavirus variants exist before vaccines were invented?

Quick Take

Many people believe the variants of the novel Coronavirus (nCoV 19) started appearing only after the vaccines were invented. While many claim that is due to the vaccine forcing the virus to mutate in order to survive, many others claim this is a conspiracy theory by big Pharma companies. We fact-checked and found that these claims are False.

The Claim

“Very odd that Covid barely “mutated” for a year but once the vaccines rolled out, suddenly a whole Greek alphabet of variants appeared,” tweeted George Papadopoulos, ex-aide to former President Donald Trump.

A number of social media users shared snapshots of the tweet on Facebook supporting the view. Such posts can be seen here, here, and here.

Fact Check

Did the Coronavirus start to mutate after the launch of vaccines?

No. While the world has become more knowledgeable about the minor aspects of the novel Coronavirus due to continuous research, media coverage, and raising public awareness, the Coronavirus had started mutating much before the vaccines were invented.

The news about Coronavirus starting to mutate started appearing on media by July 2020.

In June 2020, China approved the CanSino vaccine for limited use in the military. In August 2020, Russia announced the approval of its Sputnik V vaccine for emergency use. But both these vaccines had limited availability.

The actual launch of the vaccine can be dated to December 2020 when the US FDA granted a emergency use authorization to Pfizer–BioNTech and the Moderna vaccine.

By December 2020, scientists had discovered multiple variants in many parts of the world including the Spanish variant, South African variant, Brazilian variant, etc. In fact, by the 3rd week of December 2020, World Health Organization (WHO) had named the Alpha and Beta variant.

A Reuter’s graphics representation that tracks the evolution of Coronavirus across 2020 will show that at least 7 strands were known to scientists before the launch of the Pfizer–BioNTech vaccine. The CDC also in a briefing in January 2021 listed down all variants that were discovered in 2020.

So, it is wrong to say that the Covid virus barely mutated for a year and the new variants appeared only after the vaccines are invented.

Why do virus mutate?

Scientists believe the mutations in the virus is quite normal. When cells replicate, the DNA sequence in them sometimes undergoes changes. These are majorly copying errors. In humans, cells have mechanisms to proofread the genome and also mechanisms to repair a sequence if an error is detected. Viruses lack that and hence they mutate faster. A virus with one or several new mutations is referred to as a “variant” of the original virus. 

Are mutated virus variants more dangerous?

Not always. Many times, the copying error can make the virus weaker. But sometimes, the error proves to be beneficial for the virus by making it stronger and more capable to bind with the host. If a mutation provides a survival advantage, then that mutated version becomes the dominant strain. Most of the time, scientists focus more on studying the dominant strain, and common people are also made aware of it but that does not mean that the virus only mutates to a stronger strain.

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