NIH director on why the coronavirus variants are so concerning

Dr. Francis Collins speaks with Dr. Jon LaPook about the mutations he's seeing in the coronavirus that make it more serious. See the report, Sunday on 60 Minutes.

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The SARS CoV-2 virus is mutating more significantly than many scientists anticipated, leading to variants that may be more transmissible and deadly than the original virus from Wuhan, China. The variants have evolved because the virus has a chance to mutate every time it infects a person and over a 100 million people worldwide have been infected.

Dr. Jon LaPook reports on this phenomenon and shows the ways researchers are tracking and analyzing these new variants to keep ahead of the curve and be prepared to create new vaccines if needed. He also speaks to Dr. Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health, for his report, which will be broadcast on 60 Minutes, Sunday, March 14 at 7 p.m. ET/4 p.m. PT on CBS.

"We are reading evolution's lab notebook," Collins tells LaPook in an excerpt of the report that aired Friday on "CBS This Morning." "Every time one of these pops up, it's telling us exactly how evolution benefits at the expense of the fitness of humankind."

Collins is a geneticist who, 20 years ago, oversaw the decoding of the human genome. He says he's surprised by how much this virus is evolving. 

"Why are the variants of concern that we're seeing in places like the United Kingdom, South Africa and Brazil of such concern?" LaPook asks. 

"It turns out that some of these mutations actually change the behavior of this virus in a way that makes it more infectious or more serious," Collins says. "And the evidence is that, for both the B117, which is primarily seen in the U.K. but increasingly in the U.S. and the South African, B1351, that they are more transmissible. They're just really successful."

"We're seeing evolution in motion?" LaPook asks.

"I think it's been rarely seen as clearly as right now how evolution works," Collins says. "In that way, it was pretty predictable. What wasn't predictable for me anyway was that there would be so many copies of this virus that even a slow evolutionary process could in just a matter of a few months produce some viruses that we're worried about."

And why are there so many copies?  

"It's a pandemic," Collins says. "And it's been very successful in infecting millions and millions of people."