In recent weeks, the idea that vaccinations are leading to more dangerous strains of the coronavirus has gotten some attention. And to be fair, one could imagine that a virus will try to evolve in a way that avoids a vaccine meant to stop it.

But this interpretation is incorrect. As Vaughn Cooper and Lee Harrison, an evolutionary biologist and an infectious disease epidemiologist at the University of Pittsburgh, explain: “Most viruses in an infected person are genetically identical to the strain that started the infection. It is much more likely that one of these copies – not a rare mutation – gets passed on to someone else.”

The more infections there are, though, the more chances a person will pass a random mutation to someone else. So it is the huge number of new infections that is leading to new variants, not vaccines. In fact, the authors explain that vaccines are the best tool available to prevent dangerous new strains of the coronavirus from emerging in the first place.

Also today:

Daniel Merino

Assistant Science Editor & Co-Host of The Conversation Weekly Podcast

The huge number of active coronavirus infections offers plenty of opportunity for mutations to occur and new variants to arise. Eoneren/E+ via Getty Images

Massive numbers of new COVID–19 infections, not vaccines, are the main driver of new coronavirus variants

Vaughn Cooper, University of Pittsburgh; Lee Harrison, University of Pittsburgh

When the coronavirus copies itself, there is a chance its RNA will mutate. But new variants must jump from one host to another, and the more infections there are, the better chance this will happen.

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