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Razib Khan's Unsupervised Learning

Sep 24, 2021

On this week’s Unsupervised Learning Podcast,  Razib sits down with Mahan Ghafari, a doctoral candidate at Oxford’s department of zoology to discuss his ongoing research in the area of viral evolution.  

They discuss the difference between RNA viruses and DNA viruses and how viral evolution differs from that of more complex life forms – accentuated by a virus’s short reproduction cycle and high mutation rate - particularly in RNA viruses like SARS-CoV-2 which can mutate orders of magnitude faster than DNA based viruses. 

Mahan also discusses his involvement in SARS-CoV-2 research and the particular challenges that the virus poses, including what caught virologists off guard and where they got it wrong – particularly about the emergence of variants.  He emphasizes how much is yet to be understood about SARS-CoV-2, particularly in how mutations are evolving and in which populations they may incubate and emerge, and the importance of understanding the dynamics between virus and host. 

Mahan goes on to dispel some common misconceptions floating around the Twittersphere regarding mutation and viral virulence and emphasizes the important distinction between virulence and infectiveness.

The conversation concludes with a discussion of the effect of vaccination on the transmission and evolution of SARS-CoV-2 and how having a partially vaccinated population may potentially serve as a viral incubator, making the likelihood of mutation and breakthrough infection far more likely because it gives the virus an opportunity to replicate and maximize its diversity within non vaccinated individuals, while simultaneously exposing it to the selective pressure of the vaccinated – thus driving adaptation and increasing the odds of breakthroughs that are resistant to vaccination and treatment.