Study Finds COVID-19 Is Mutating To Become More Contagious

Grant Boone
September 27, 2020

Research into the structure of the coronavirus from two infection waves in a large United States city has revealed that a more contagious strain dominates recent samples.

In the second major gene sequencing study conducted by James M. Musser, M.D., Ph.D., chair of the Department of Pathology and Genomic Medicine at Houston Methodist, and his team of infectious disease pathologists, they found that the two waves affected different types of patients.

Many different strains of the virus entered Houston initially, but when the city moved from a small initial wave in March to a much larger outbreak in late June, nearly every coronavirus sample contained a particular mutation on the virus' surface that had previously been found in cases in Europe.

This impaired interferon response may be a unsafe turning point in infections of SARS-CoV-2, which causes COVID-19.

All viruses mutate and most of these random changes to the genetic sequence are insignificant.

Most mutations have no impact, but this process sometimes changes the virus' behavior or makeup, and if that change helps the virus spread, a mutated version of the virus can eventually dominate through natural selection.

Scientists around the world noted as early as May that the D614G strain had become dominant in most counties with high coronavirus case numbers, including the US.

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The number of Covid-19 cases have surged to more than 32.4 million or 0.4 per cent of the Earth's total population - meaning almost every 250th person has already contracted coronavirus.

But they found scant evidence that mutations in the virus have made it deadlier. This spike allows the virus to enter host cells in an infected person. The study, however, concluded that the virus is not more potent.

The senior advisor to Anthony Fauci said that the virus could be reacting to human interventions, including masks and social distancing, that have been developed since the beginning of the pandemic to stem its spread. They trigger infected cells to produce proteins which attack the virus.

David Morens, a virologist at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said the study raises the possibility coronavirus will be hard to control.

"If that happened, we'd be in the same situation as with the flu".

As a rule, the more genetic diversity a virus has the more prepared it is to evolve away from future treatments and vaccines.

"We'll have to chase the virus and, as it mutates, we'll have to tinker with our vaccine", Morens said.

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