Real life with COVID-19 is now scarier than anything a sci-fi writer could envision. So-called "escape mutations" that can turn the virus into an out-of-control shape-shifter that hides from the immune system are now a frightening reality. And they can't be totally stopped with masks or social distancing, lockdowns or travel restrictions. Even if we could keep all viruses out, the ones already here are mutating in a direction that keeps them infectious and deadly. The battle between us and this often-lethal virus has just jumped to a new level.
While it may take awhile to see whether these escape mutations will evade the vaccines approved or in the pipeline, Tyler Starr from the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center and colleagues report in a new study in Science an effect on two already available treatments — monoclonal antibodies. They've identified an escape mutation with a single glitch that enables the virus to evade Regeneron's double-antibody REGN-COV2 "cocktail" (which Trump took) and a third antibody in Eli Lilly's LY-CoV016. The researchers found the escapee using a new lab mapping technique that displays viruses contorted with mutation, and then they found it in a patient who was still testing positive, 145 days after the first test.
What does this mean? The discovery of escape mutations derailing antibody treatments means that the companies' initial tests hadn't caught them all. And the escape mutations — the new mapping revealed three others — are already in circulation.
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