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How Does The Coronavirus Mutate? It's Just A Series Of Mistakes

(CBS4) - A new COVID-19 variant -- omicron -- has some experts worried it could be more transmissible and more resistant to vaccines than previous variants of the virus. So just how did the virus get to this point? Health experts say it's a series of mistakes the virus makes as it travels from host to host.

RELATED: Omicron Variant Is In Colorado, Health Officials Confirm

"When viruses are transmitted from person to person, every single time that virus moves to a new person, it's replicating itself over and over again, and there is a chance for an error to happen," explained Tori Burket, the epidemiology disease intervention program manager of the Denver Department of Public Health and Environment.

Omicron Covid coronavirus
A coronavirus omicron variant composition (Courtesy: Getty Images)

Burket says, as a virus grows inside a person, it reproduces and makes copies of itself. Sometimes, the virus makes mistakes with those copies, leading to mutations.

The mistakes can sometimes make the virus weaker, and that variant dies off, but sometimes, the mistakes help the virus become a stronger, more resistant form of its previous version.

"So if you kind of think about if you're a kid, and you're playing that telephone game with your friends, turning to your friend and whispering something, as that message gets passed along enough people, there's going to be things that change and by the time you get to the very last person, the message probably sounds or looks a little bit different than what it looked like at the very beginning," Burket said. "Overall, your body is still recognizing, you know, this is COVID-19 and that's why we call them variants."

She says the flu virus mutates about four times as fast as the coronavirus.

"That's why every year you're getting a new flu shot," Burket said. "They change the vaccine every year to try to match the common strains that they're seeing floating around because they're mutating and they're changing."

While it will take a couple weeks for health officials to fully understand the omicron variant's characteristics, scientists are concerned its spike protein mutation indicates it could be more transmissible and more vaccine resistant.

Burket says the best way for communities to prevent further COVID-19 mutations is to get vaccinated and boosted, wear a mask indoors and practice social distancing.

"If we're able to reduce the overall number of people that are becoming infected with COVID-19, that is lowering the chance for that virus to mutate at every step," Burket explained. "Every person that becomes infected, that's a chance for the virus to mutate. So if we're cutting down that number, we're taking away those opportunities, and there won't be as many mutations, there won't be as many variants."

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