Should We Be Worried About the Coronavirus Mutating?

On July 2, researchers from Los Alamos Laboratory released a new study in Cell—a highly influential journal in the scientific community—that examines whether a particular mutation of the coronavirus increases the virus’ transmission rate. Of primary concern to the study’s authors is the G614 mutation on the spike protein of the coronavirus, the protein responsible for invading host cells. The authors contend that this mutation began circulating throughout Europe in early February and began displacing the D614 form of the virus that originated in Wuhan, China. According to the study, this G614 variant possesses a higher transmission rate, results in a higher viral load, and consistently becomes the dominant form of the virus wherever it spreads. 

Understanding how a virus is mutating is important for several reasons. Do mutations make the virus more dangerous, as described above? If there are different strains, will they respond to treatments differently, or target different segments of the population? And what does it all mean for having an effective vaccine?

While some researchers immediately embraced this study as a clear indicator that this particular mutation is increasing the virus’ transmissibility rate, others are less convinced. Dr. Raul Andino-Pavlovsky, a professor of microbiology and immunology at the University of California at San Francisco, called the spike protein mutation findings “intriguing,” but told The Dispatch “it may be a little too early to say that [these mutations] are being selected.” Dr. William Schaffner, an infectious disease specialist at the Vanderbilt University Medical Center, told us “it is too early to draw those conclusions.”

Other scientists suggest that gene sequencing studies focus too much on singular mutations when there’s so much about the virus we still don’t know. “People who are writing papers about sequence variation want to highlight the variation that they find because that’s how they’re going to publish the paper,” said Dr. Colin Parrish, a professor of virology at Cornell University. Excessive gene sequencing for the coronavirus has already become the norm, meaning that moving forward, researchers will continue talking about mutations “as if they’re more important than they may well be.” 

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