According to a new study led by scientists at Los Alamos National Laboratory, a new strain of coronavirus has been identified. It's a different or mutated version of the original virus from Wuhan that seems to be more contagious, reports the LA Times.
The new strain appeared in February in Europe, migrated quickly to the East Coast of the United States and has been the dominant strain across the world since mid-March, the scientists wrote.
Not only does it spread faster than the original strain, but it also leaves people open for a second bout of infection.
The 33-page study was published on BioRxiv, a website that scientists use to share their work before it’s peer-reviewed. Websites like BioRxiv are helpful when a sense of urgency is called for, like during the COVID-19 pandemic that we are experiencing now. The fear is that all research on treatments and vaccines are based on the old strain of the virus, and any breakthroughs made up until this point won’t help treat the new, dominant strain.
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. The new strain’s dominance over its predecessors demonstrates that it is more infectious, according to the report, though exactly why is not yet known.
Researches analyzed nearly 6,000 sequences of the virus from around the world. The sequences and data was collected by the Global Initiative for Sharing All Influenza Data, which is a public-private initiative in Germany.
The Los Alamos team was assisted by scientists at Duke University and the University of Sheffield in England. They identified 14 mutations. Those 14 mutations showed among nearly 30,000 base pairs of RNA that other scientists say make up the coronavirus’s genome. The particular mutation that is responsible for the spikes in positive cases is called D614G.
“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. When viruses with this mutation enter a population, they rapidly begin to take over the local epidemic, thus they are more transmissible.” said study leader Bette Korber, a computational biologist at Los Alamos on social media.
“This is hard news, 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," she continued.
Scientists had hoped that the coronavirus was not like the seasonal flu, which mutates every year. With these findings, it's possible that it could be. If the virus does not prove seasonal and die off during the summer, then we could be in store for even further mutations.
Researchers are not 100 percent sure how the mutations will affect the virus’ behavior, but they believe it will give it an “evolutionary advantage” over its predecessor.
“D614G is increasing in frequency at an alarming rate, indicating a fitness advantage relative to the original Wuhan strain that enables more rapid spread,” the study said.
Researchers are now theorizing that there are two strains of the virus in the U.S.: an East Coast strain and a West Coast strain.