It’s not great news. A mutation of the pandemic COVID-19 virus has been identified. This coronavirus mutation is thought to be more contagious than the original Wuhan strain and might prevent immunity against second COVID-19 infections.
A group of researchers at Los Alamos National Laboratory published the findings on BioRxiv. The BioRxiv website is used to share researchers’ work prior to peer review, simply as a way to speed up collaborations with scientists working on COVID-19 vaccines and treatments worldwide. Prior research on the virus was based on the earlier genetic sequence of the Wuhan strain; the worry is that it might not be relevant to this newer strain.
The report was based on a computational analysis of more than 6,000 coronavirus sequences from around the world, collected by the Global Initiative for Sharing All Influenza Data, a public-private organization in Germany, reported the LA Times.
“The story is worrying, as we see a mutated form of the virus very rapidly emerging, and over the month of March becoming the dominant pandemic form,” study leader Bette Korber, a computational biologist at Los Alamos, wrote on her Facebook page. “When viruses with this mutation enter a population, they rapidly begin to take over the local epidemic, thus they are more transmissible.”
While it has yet to be peer reviewed, the large Los Alamos study found a mutation spike, called Spike D614G, not found in the Wuhan strain. “This mutation spread in Europe in early Febuary, and when it hits a new region it soon becomes the dominant form,” the 33-page report stated.
In fact, “wherever the new strain appeared, it quickly infected far more people than the earlier strains that came out of Wuhan, China, and within weeks it was the only strain that was prevalent in some nations, according to the report,” stated the LA Times.
COVID-19 (also known as SARS-CoV-2), has infected more than 3.5 million people worldwide and led to more than 250,000 COVID-19 related deaths so far.
How Deadly Is It?
This coronavirus mutation doesn’t mean the strain is necessarily deadlier than the original. “People infected with the mutated strain appear to have higher viral loads. But the study’s authors from the University of Sheffield found that among a local sample of 447 patients, hospitalization rates were about the same for people infected with either virus version,” says the LA Times.
What it does do is perhaps complicate the quest for a single vaccine. If the two strains vary enough, COVID-19 might end up being two similar, yet distinct illnesses; recovery or immunization for one strain might not provide immunity to the other.
Still, the speed at which these discoveries are being made is positive. Worldwide cooperation and collaboration are working to defeat the virus. “This is hard news,” wrote Korber, “but please don’t only be disheartened by it. Our team at LANL was able to document this mutation and its impact on transmission only because of a massive global effort of clinical people and experimental groups, who make new sequences of the virus (SARS-CoV-2) in their local communities available as quickly as they possibly can.”