New research shows how a COVID-19 mutation could have made the virus spread faster

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Findings from the Scripps Research Institute in Florida point to a mutation in the novel coronavirus that may enhance its ability to infect our cells, CNN reports. Here’s what we know about this coronavirus mutation so far.

When a virus infects a host cell, it replicates itself, essentially converting the cell into a virus factory, CNN explains. The virus’s genetic material is also replicated, but errors known as mutations can arise in the process. As Mic has previously reported, most of these mutations have zero effect on viral function.

But the Scripps researchers believe a mutation called D614G makes the novel coronavirus more infectious, according to CNN. They used lab-grown cells, and as a statement from Scripps explains, a harmless virus they engineered to express certain novel coronavirus proteins.

The researchers showed that D614G greatly increases the number of spikes on the surface of the virus, used to invade human cells, per CNN. They plan to upload the results to bioRxiv, which hosts preprints, papers that still need to undergo the peer review process by other researchers to determine whether they meet rigorous scientific standards.

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These findings could help explain the virus’s rapid transmission throughout the U.S. and Latin America, William Haseltine, a virologist and chairman of Access Health International, (who wasn’t involved in the Scripps study) told CNN. He said a change that emerged in mid-January made the virus “about 10 times more infectious,” although “it doesn’t mean it’s more lethal.”

Los Alamos National Laboratory researchers also investigated D614G as the culprit for this spread, per CNN. They claimed in a paper uploaded to bioRxiV in April that a novel coronavirus with the mutation “began spreading in Europe in early February, and when introduced to new regions it rapidly becomes the dominant form.” But, as Mic reported, they couldn’t yet rule out random chance, or some factor other than D614G being more infectious.

On the other hand, the Scripps researchers demonstrated in three laboratory experiments that D614G may indeed make the novel coronavirus more infectious by boosting its ability to bind to, and invade, target cells, Haseltine told CNN. He added that the findings suggest we need to remain vigilant of the novel coronavirus’s changes over time, including those in response to vaccines, treatments, and other efforts to control its spread.

But the Scripps researchers believe epidemiological studies are needed to tease apart whether the changes they saw due to D614G really does increase transmission, per the Scripps statement. They also can’t say whether they impact COVID-19 symptoms or makes the disease more deadly. But immune factors from the serum of infected individuals were effective against the viruses they engineered, regardless of whether they had the mutation, suggesting the vaccines underway will also offer protection from the virus, whether or not it carries D614G.

The findings are an important reminder that while it might not feel like it after months of sheltering in place, this virus is very new, and there’s still a lot we don’t know about it. Before we freak out about a new mutation, we need to await further studies to know what, if any, real-world effects it actually has.