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article imageResearchers: New strain of coronavirus could be more contagious

By Karen Graham     May 6, 2020 in Science
Scientists have identified a new strain of the coronavirus that has become dominant worldwide and appears to be more contagious than the versions that spread in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic.
According to a new study led by scientists at Los Alamos National Laboratory, the new strain of SARS-CoV-2 appeared in Europe in February and quickly migrated to the East Coast of the United States and has become the dominant strain around the world since March.
In the report, the scientists warn that besides spreading faster, the mutated virus makes people more vulnerable to a second infection after their first bout with the disease.
The 33-page report was posted on BioRxiv, a website that researchers use to share their work before it is peer-reviewed. Doing so helps to speed up collaborations between scientists working on COVID-19 vaccines and treatments.
Scientists have based their hopes of finding a vaccine or treatment for the coronavirus on initial research that assumed the virus was stable and not likely to mutate the way the influenza virus does, according to the Los Angeles Times, requiring a new vaccine every year. The new study could change that assumption.
This transmission electron microscope image shows SARS-CoV-2—also known as 2019-nCoV  the virus th...
This transmission electron microscope image shows SARS-CoV-2—also known as 2019-nCoV, the virus that causes COVID-19. isolated from a patient in the U.S., emerging from the surface of cells cultured in the lab.
NIAID-RML (CC BY 2.0)
The genetic mutation identified
The coronavirus, known to scientists as SARS-CoV-2, has infected more than 3.5 million people around the world and caused more than 250,000 COVID-19 deaths since its discovery late last year. The report is 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.
The mutation identified in the report affects the spikes on the outside of the coronavirus - those infamous thorn-like protuberances - that allow the virus to enter human respiratory cells.
The Los Alamos team, assisted by scientists at Duke University and the University of Sheffield in England, identified 14 mutations. Those mutations occurred among the nearly 30,000 base pairs of RNA that other scientists say make up the coronavirus's genome.
The scientists focused on the D614G mutation which is responsible for the change in the virus' spikes. This is important because many of the treatments and vaccines being developed are supposed to latch onto the spikes or interrupt its action. However, if these compounds were based on the original genetic sequencing of the virus, they may not be effective on the mutated virus.
“We cannot afford to be blindsided as we move vaccines and antibodies into clinical testing,” .study leader Bette Korber, a computational biologist at Los Alamos, wrote on her Facebook page. “Please be encouraged by knowing the global scientific community is on this, and we are cooperating with each other in ways I have never seen … in my 30 years as a scientist.”
"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."
More about coronavirus, Mutation, Spike "S" protein, fourteen mutations, reinfection
 
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