AUSTIN (KXAN) — If you’ve been following news of the COVID-19 pandemic, you’ve probably seen a lot of chatter over the past week about mutations and the number of mutations the omicron variant is expected to have.

“This virus has mutations, some have reported as many as 43. I heard a report from someone at NIH (National Institutes of Health) that there may be as many as 50,” Dr. Desmar Walkes, the Austin-Travis County health authority, told local leaders this week.

What is a mutation?

A mutation, according to the CDC, is “a single change” in a virus’s genetic code. A variant is a genetic code that contains one or more mutations.

A spokesperson for Austin Public Health describes it this way:

A virus replicates by copying itself. Sometimes this process has errors and the copy is different than the original, ala a mutation. Mutations that are ineffective die out, but some mutations help the virus spread more effectively. With enough of the ‘right’ mutations, you now have a new variant of the virus.

Still don’t get it? Think of it like this

The Texas Medical Association broke it down this way: it’s like a game of telephone (yeah, like the one you played in middle school).

The phrase you start with is the original virus. If someone messes up and says one word wrong, that’s like a mutation. One word might change the meaning of the phrase, it may not — same with mutations.

When you have multiple word changes and they change the sentence (or the virus in this example), that’s a variant.

Why are we just hearing about mutations now?

Health leaders discovered omicron has the highest number of mutations compared to its predecessor variants — and many of them involved spike protein.

Spike proteins are what a virus uses to attach itself to your cells. So Austin Public Health says this virus could be spread more easily.