The race against the virus that causes COVID-19 has taken a new turn: Mutations are rapidly appearing, and the longer we wait for a vaccine, the more likely it is that a variant can surpass current tests and treatments.

Coronavirus is quickly becoming more genetically diverse, and health officials say the high rate of cases is the main reason.

Each new infection gives the virus a chance to mutate as it duplicates itself, threatening to undo all the progress made to control the pandemic.

On Friday, the World Health Organisation urged more effort to detect new variants.

The US Centres for Disease Control (CDC) said a new version first found in the United Kingdom may become dominant in the US by March.

Despite not causing severe illness, it will lead to more people being hospitalised because it spreads so quickly.

“We’re taking it really very seriously,” Dr Anthony Fauci, the US government’s top infectious disease expert, told NBC on Sunday.

“We need to do everything we can now … to get transmission as low as we possibly can,” Harvard University’s Dr Michael Mina said.

“The best way to prevent mutant strains from emerging is to slow transmission.”

Currently, vaccines are proving to be effective, but there are some signs that the new mutations may undermine tests for the virus and reduce the efficacy of antibody drugs as treatments.

“We’re in a race against time” because the virus “may stumble upon a mutation” that makes it more dangerous, Dr Pardis Sabeti, an evolutionary biologist at the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard, said.

Younger people may be more relaxed when it comes to wearing masks and shunning crowds, as the current strain isn’t detrimental to them, but Dr Sabeti warned “in one mutational change, it might”.

So what needs to be done?

“We’re seeing a lot of variants, viral diversity because there’s a lot of virus out there,” and reducing new infections is the best way to curb it, Dr Adam Lauring, an infectious diseases expert at the University of Michigan, said.

Loyce Pace, who runs the nonprofit Global Health Council and is a member of President Joe Biden’s COVID-19 advisory board, said the same precautions scientists have been advising all along “still work and they still matter”.

“We still want people to be masking up,” she said on Thursday on a webcast hosted by the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.

“We still need people to limit congregating with people outside their household.

“We still need people to be washing their hands and really being vigilant about those public health practices, especially as these variants emerge.”

This article originally appeared on Over60.