Is coronavirus mutating to become more contagious, deadlier?
If the coronavirus doesn’t subside in the summer like the seasonal flu, it could mutate further and potentially limit the effectiveness of the virus vaccines being developed around the world, say scientists.
Scientists have identified a new strain of the coronavirus that has become dominant worldwide and appears to be more contagious and deadlier than the versions that spread in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, says a new study.
According to the study led by scientists at Los Alamos National Laboratory in the US, the new strain appeared in February in Europe, migrated quickly to the East Coast of the United States and has been the dominant across the world since mid-March.
The 33-page report was posted on BioRxiv -- a website that researchers use to share their work before it is peer-reviewed. Doing this helps experts to speed up collaborations with scientists working on COVID-19 vaccines or treatments.
The report says that in addition to spreading faster, it may make people vulnerable to a second infection after a first bout with the disease.
Researchers say that the mutated form of the virus appears more infectious and spreads faster but it does not seem to affect how seriously ill someone becomes.
If the coronavirus doesn’t subside in the summer like the seasonal flu, it could mutate further and potentially limit the effectiveness of the virus vaccines being developed around the world, the researchers warned.
Some vaccine researchers have been using the virus’s genetic sequences isolated by health authorities early in the outbreak.
Believed to have originated in China or Europe the version of the virus -- dubbed G614 -- is now “the dominant pandemic form in many countries”, the scientists said.
“This is hard news,” Bette Korber, a computational biologist at Los Alamos and lead author of the study, the Los Angeles Times said she wrote on her Facebook page.
“But please don’t only be disheartened by it,” she continued. “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.”
Scientists are still not sure whether people develop long-term immunity after their first bout of COVID-19.
Sir Patrick Vallance, the UK's chief scientific adviser, said it is very unlikely that people would develop total protection after recovering from the illness.
The coronavirus, known to scientists as SARS-CoV-2, has infected more than 3.6 million people around the world and caused more than 257,000 COVID-19 deaths since its discovery late last year.
In early March, researchers in China said they found that two different types of the coronavirus could be causing infections across the world.
In a study published on March 3, scientists at Peking University’s School of Life Sciences and the Institut Pasteur of Shanghai found that a more aggressive type of the new coronavirus had accounted for roughly 70% of analyzed strains, while 30% had been linked to a less aggressive type.
The more aggressive and deadly strain was found to be prevalent in the early stages of the outbreak in the Chinese city of Wuhan —where the virus is believed to have originated.
Researchers at the Los Alamos National Laboratory, with the help of scientists at Duke University and the University of Sheffield in England, were able to analyze thousands of coronavirus sequences collected by the Global Initiative for Sharing All Influenza -- an organization that promotes the rapid sharing of data from all influenza viruses and the coronavirus.
The researchers have identified 14 mutations till date.
The mutation impacts the spike protein -- a multifunctional mechanism that allows the virus to enter the host. It is a cause of concern, say scientists.
If a vaccine is developed to target the virus by latching onto its spike protein, for example, that would become useless if the protein changed shape.
And the same principle applies to natural immunity -- if the body learns to attack viruses with a spike protein that is one shape, it may not recognise or react to a virus with one that takes a different form.