Although the novel coronavirus was initially identified in Wuhan, China, it presently continues to ravage the West. Since last December, many experiments are being carried out in order to trace the current virus back to its original strain, and to identify the new mutations gained along the way. However, in true 2020 style, it was recently revealed that the strain the West is currently dealing with is both heavily mutated, and more infectious.
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A pre-print study discovered 33 mutations in the SARS-Cov-2 pathogen, in April. This suggested that the virus was undergoing mutations rapidly. It was concluded that with the right mutation, the virus might increase its infectivity, and this nightmare has now become a reality. A preprint published on BioRxiv has revealed that we are dealing with a more infectious strain at the present.
Like in any other organism, viral mutations too take place randomly. These can have several effects on the strain. In most cases, they do no change to the organism, but sometimes, they can be harmful. A research done by the Scripps Research Institute shows that mutations in the SARS-Cov-2 strain that’s dominant in the West, named G614, has changed the virus in a way that it can multiply and transmit more efficiently to other hosts.
The reason for this is the spike protein, an external component of the virus which is responsible for transmission, being more stable in the mutated strain (G614), than in the original stain (D614). In the original strain, the spike protein breaks off after getting attached to cells in the air passage of humans, avoiding continuous infection. It attaches the virus cell to the host cell, and lets the virus multiply and infect others till it shreds and finds a new host. But the new strain retains this spike protein, giving it the ability to multiply and infect others at a higher rate.
This explains the reason for the greater stability of the spike protein of the G614 strain. Due to this reason, scientists also believe that the new strain is around 10 times more infectious than the original strain. However, an increase in the disease severity was not observed along with the increase of the rate of host to host transmission.
The discoveries of the Scripps team correlates with a study released by the University of Sheffield, which stated that the mutations acquired by the virus were accumulating via positive selection. A rapid rise in frequency of the strain was observed by researchers in regions with the G614 strain, and surprisingly, it was powerful enough to become the dominant strain within several weeks.
There’s no need to panic, though. These studies haven’t gone through strict peer reviews yet, so the results are yet to be confirmed.
Ian Jones, Professor of Virology at the University of Reading, explained: “Coronaviruses generate mutations as part of their normal replication. That some of these would have an effect on virus properties is not surprising.” However, he was not part of the above mentioned study.
Some believe that these mutations might be a challenge to invent a successful vaccine, because they can affect how our cells respond to the infection. But, with positive results coming from an early-stage trials of the Pfizer vaccine and others, we can be hopeful of a vaccine that works.
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