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ILLUSTRATION: SIMOUL ALVA (All the Ways to Kill a Coronavirus (So Far) — WIRED)

Researchers identify 14 different mutations of COVID-19

The new preprint study raises questions about the effectiveness of upcoming vaccines and immunity to the virus

While the COVID-19 has been a highly contagious infection, causing millions across the globe to contract it, the silver lining from the earlier samples of the virus studies showed that it mutated less vigorously than some of the other viral infections out there.

According to an earlier report by Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory, there were only about four to ten genetic differences between the strains that have infected people in the United States and the original virus that spread in Wuhan. However, researchers had based this conclusion on the virus’s genetic sequences isolated by health authorities early in the outbreak.

Knowing about the mutation of a virus is important so that an effective vaccine can be produced to fend it off. Also, the mutation is the deciding factor in what kind of immunity does a person holds against it. The SARS-COV1, which caused a pandemic back in 2003, perhaps offers the best comparison in this regard. Another example is the seasonal coronavirus in the form of common cold whose immunity only lasts a few months and that is why researchers have a race against time in coming with a new vaccine every year to fight the new strain.

Studies for people who recovered from the SARS pandemic showed that their antibodies level peaked around 2–4 months and offered protection for around 2–3 years, and it might be reasonable to assume the same time frame for COVID-19. But earlier studies for SARS-COV2 (or COVID-19) have shown that antibodies produced by our immune system to neutralize the pathogen are only sticking around for a couple of weeks. Clearly not an ideal scenario. A lot to learn on that front as the situation evolves, so no need to become pessimistic just yet.

Even if we are to assume that the virus that emerged from Wuhan has 4–10 mutations (so far), it is evident that the strain that infected people in Europe and eventually in North America is much more contagious and dominant then the original version. As the majority of the countries begin to flatten the curve of new infections, hope is emerging the pandemic might be subsiding — at least for now.

That being said, if the spread doesn’t stop and the virus mutates further during the summer, it could limit the effectiveness of any of the upcoming vaccines. And this is where the new study by researchers at the Los Alamos National Laboratory — LANL(New Mexico, U.S) is worrisome. Keep in mind though that this study has yet to be peer-reviewed.

The LANL researchers along with the scientists at Duke University and the University of Sheffield in England analyzed samples coronavirus sequences collected by the Global Initiative for Sharing All Influenza Data (GISAID) to identify 14 different spike protein mutations that are accumulating in various strains. The study also showed that one strain that emerged in Europe in February was the most dominant of them all.

This mutation called spike D614G, which was not found in the first strain that emerged in Wuhan appears much more contagious. Before reaching any definitive conclusions though, the preprint study needs to be peer-reviewed and thoroughly vetted by the scientists on its findings. The study getting widespread coverage in the media has received a lot of pushback from the scientific community as they question the wisdom on reporting on these preprint studies when the world is fighting a raging pandemic.

LANL researchers are optimistic that although the new strain lead is more contagious, there is no proof that it is causing more hospitalizations. Nonetheless, if the research eventually holds out, it might upend the currently held consensus that the virus is stable and doesn’t mutate in a way that is harder to control. Keeping our fingers crossed…

Complete findings of the Preprint study were published in BioRxiv.

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