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'We know it's coming' | What virus expert has learned about influenza versus COVID-19

When different viruses, like influenza, meet in your body, they may mutate into a new strain. Is COVID-19 doing the same?

DAVIS, Calif — There's still a lot we don't know about COVID-19 and scientists around the world are studying it and monitoring the novel coronavirus.

One of those experts is Assistant Professor Samuel Díaz-Muñoz in UC Davis' Department of Microbiology and Molecular Genetics who studies the social lives of viruses.

"Viruses frequently affect the same host," said Díaz-Muñoz. 

When different viruses meet in your body, they may learn, morph and exchange genes to mutate create a new strain. This is part of the reason there's a new and different flu vaccine every year.

"In the flu season we can say, 'Okay that variant right there, that strain we think is going to be the dominant one so let's manufacture the vaccine with that one," said Díaz-Muñoz. 

So is COVID-19 doing the same thing as influenza? The answer is somewhat.

While they are both mutating, they're doing so at different rates and in different ways. 

Influenza is known among scientists for having a high mutation rate. 

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"It doesn't mean it's going to be become more deadly. It doesn't mean it's going to become more transmissible, necessarily," said Díaz-Muñoz. "It just mutates. Viruses mutate."

But Díaz-Muñoz said while COVID-19 is mutating, it is extremely stable and experts have yet to prove there are any new strains. Part of the reason behind this is because this is a new virus.

"It still has billions of people to infect in the globe, so it doesn't have a need right now to mutate or create a new strain or property," said Díaz-Muñoz.

So, if you've already contracted COVID-19, can you get it again?

Experts are unsure.

For some, COVID-19 stays in the system for a long time, so if you think you're re-infected it may just be the symptoms rearing their head again - rather than reinfection. 

"So, you can see the pattern of where you can test positive and then test negative and then test positive," said Díaz-Muñoz.

With COVID-19, experts are unsure what level of anti-body we need to be protected. But antibodies are just one part of our complex immune systems, and Díaz-Muñoz said the symptoms are actually our immune systems reacting to a virus — not the virus itself. That's why experts are still learning about how our bodies are reacting to COVID-19.

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"It is also possible that if we re-infected again, the disease is more severe. That does happen in some viruses," said Díaz-Muñoz. "We do not know yet if that's the case [for COVID-19]. That's why it's really important for people to not do COVID parties."

One thing experts have learned is that COVID-19 is not seasonal.

"But you know what is seasonal? The flu," said Díaz-Muñoz. "And we know it's coming."

That's why he said this is the most important year to get your flu shot. Both viruses could live in your body at the same time — and while he's interested to see how the viruses will react and possibly mutate in the presence of one another, he's urging others to avoid this situation.

"You really don't want two respiratory illnesses that can land you in the hospital at the same time," said Díaz-Muñoz.

Follow the conversation on Facebook with Andie Judson.

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