Researchers Discover Gene Mutation that Spreads COVID-19 Faster

Saturday, July 4, 2020 - 11:43

Duke University's School of Medicine researchers have discovered a new strain of coronavirus that spreads it faster.

Dr. David Montefiori, a professor of surgery who also serves as Director of the Laboratory for AIDS Vaccine Research and Development, explained that, “We're looking at the genetic sequence of the virus, and in particular we're looking at the sequence of the spike protein. This is a protein that's on the surface of a virus, that the virus uses to attach to a cell, and to get into a cell," abc 7 reports.

"Once those sequences are deposited into the database, scientists have access to those sequences to analyze them. And my colleague at Los Alamos National Laboratory Dr. Bette Korber, who is an expert at analyzing sequences and we have been collaborating together for many years on HIV, she immediately started analyzing the spike sequences in that database that were coming in from around the world. And we were both interested in whether or not mutations might arise that showed evidence of spreading in the human population - that many people would show evidence of being infected with a virus that carries a mutation in it."

"(Dr. Korber) noticed this mutation that we call D614G in the spike protein that was found in about six people in very early March. So it became a mutation of interest because of showing some evidence of spreading, suggesting that it might have a fitness advantage. And within weeks, it was found in more and more people. As more and more sequences came into the database, more and more of those sequences had this mutation. And it just kept spreading. By the end of April, it was now the dominant strain of the virus globally," said Dr. Montefiori.

While researchers do not believe this strain is more dangerous than the original strain, there is still cause for concern. "It appears to spread faster. And that's probably why the virus liked the mutation and why it's so dominant because it provided an advantage to the virus to spread easier. And that's what a virus wants to do to survive. It wants to be able to transmit," said Dr. Montefiori.

Dr. Montefiori did not believe this mutation is the reason why the United States has so many more cases, hospitalizations, and deaths than any other country.

"For example you look at Italy - this is the dominant form of the virus in Italy, it was the dominant form almost from the very beginning, and things were very bad over there. And they have it under control. And the same is true for other parts of the world," Dr. Montefiori explained.

He added that treatments for COVID-19 typically target other parts of the virus, so the mutation should not have any impact. The focus is now on determining whether the mutation could affect a potential vaccine, which was based on the original strain found in Wuhan, China.

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