Study shows coro­n­avirus mu­tat­ing

Re­searchers spec­u­late if virus has evolved to be more con­ta­gious

Santa Fe New Mexican - - NATION - By Chris Mooney, Joel Achenbach and Joe Fox

Sci­en­tists in Hous­ton on Wed­nes­day re­leased a study of more than 5,000 ge­netic se­quences of the coro­n­avirus, which re­veals the virus’s con­tin­ual ac­cu­mu­la­tion of mu­ta­tions, one of which may have made it more con­ta­gious.

That mu­ta­tion is as­so­ci­ated with a higher vi­ral load among pa­tients upon ini­tial di­ag­no­sis, the re­searchers found.

The study, which has not been peer-re­viewed, was posted Wed­nes­day on the pre­print server MedRxiv. It ap­pears to be the largest sin­gle ag­gre­ga­tion of ge­netic se­quences of the virus in the United States. A larger batch of se­quences was pub­lished this month by sci­en­tists in the United King­dom, and like the Hous­ton study, con­cluded that a mu­ta­tion that changes the struc­ture of the “spike pro­tein” on the sur­face of the virus may be driv­ing the out­size spread of that strain.

The new re­port did not find that these mu­ta­tions have made the virus dead­lier. All viruses ac­cu­mu­late ge­netic mu­ta­tions, and most are in­signif­i­cant, sci­en­tists say. Coro­n­aviruses such as SARS-CoV-2, which causes the ill­ness COVID-19, are rel­a­tively sta­ble as viruses go, be­cause they have a proof­read­ing mech­a­nism as they repli­cate.

But ev­ery mu­ta­tion is a roll of the dice, and with trans­mis­sion so wide­spread in the United States — which con­tin­ues to see tens of thou­sands of new con­firmed in­fec­tions daily — the virus has had abun­dant op­por­tu­ni­ties to change, po­ten­tially with trou­ble­some con­se­quences, said study au­thor James Musser of Hous­ton Methodist Hos­pi­tal.

“We have given this virus a lot of chances,” Musser told the Wash­ing­ton Post. “There is a huge pop­u­la­tion size out there right now.”

Sci­en­tists from Weill Cor­nell Medicine, the Univer­sity of Chicago, Ar­gonne Na­tional Lab­o­ra­tory and the Univer­sity of Texas at Austin also con­trib­uted to the study.

David Morens, vi­rol­o­gist at the Na­tional In­sti­tute of Al­lergy and In­fec­tious Dis­eases and se­nior ad­viser to Anthony Fauci, re­viewed the study and said the find­ings point to the like­li­hood that the virus has be­come more trans­mis­si­ble and that this may af­fect for our abil­ity to con­trol it.

“Wear­ing masks, wash­ing our hands, all those things are bar­ri­ers to trans­mis­si­bil­ity, or con­ta­gion, but as the virus be­comes more con­ta­gious it sta­tis­ti­cally is bet­ter at get­ting around those bar­ri­ers,” said Morens.

Mu­ta­tion also has im­pli­ca­tions for the for­mu­la­tion of vac­cines, he said. “Al­though we don’t know yet, it is well within the realm of pos­si­bil­ity that this coro­n­avirus, when our pop­u­la­tion-level im­mu­nity gets high enough, this coro­n­avirus will find a way to get around our im­mu­nity,” Morens said. “If that hap­pened, we’d be in the same sit­u­a­tion as with flu. We’ll have to chase the virus and, as it mu­tates, we’ll have to tin­ker with our vac­cine.”

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