Scientists have identified a new, highly-potent strain of coronavirus that has spread globally and is more contagious than the virus in early days of the COVID-19 pandemic. The team led by US-based Los Alamos National Laboratory has posted their 33-page report on Thursday on preprint portal BioRxiv, which is yet to be peer-reviewed. The new strain appeared in February in Europe, migrated to the US East Coast and has been the dominant strain across the world since mid-March.
Los Alamos National Laboratory (Los Alamos or LANL) is a US Department of Energy’s national laboratory initially organized during World War II for the design of nuclear weapons. “In addition to spreading faster, it may make people vulnerable to a second infection after a first bout with the disease,” the authors warned.
The mutation affects the now infamous spikes on the exterior of the coronavirus, which allow it to enter human respiratory cells.
The authors said they felt an “urgent need for an early warning” so that vaccines manufacturers around the world will be prepared to take on the more deadly mutated strain.
The new strain’s dominance over its predecessors demonstrates that it is more infectious, though exactly why is still not known. The report was based on a computational analysis of more than 6,000 coronavirus sequences from around the world.
The Los Alamos team, along with by scientists at Duke University and the University of Sheffield in England, identified 14 mutations. “The story is worrying, as we see a mutated form of the virus very rapidly emerging, and over the month of March becoming the dominant pandemic form,” study leader Bette Korber from Los Alamos, wrote on her Facebook page.
“When viruses with this mutation enter a population, they rapidly begin to take over the local epidemic, thus they are more transmissible,” added Korber, a computational biologist.
“We have developed an analysis pipeline to facilitate real-time mutation tracking in SARS-CoV-2, focusing initially on the Spike (S) protein because it mediates infection of human cells and is the target of most vaccine strategies and antibody-based therapeutics,” the authors wrote.
“The mutation ‘Spike D614G’ is of urgent concern; it began spreading in Europe in early February, and when introduced to new regions it rapidly becomes the dominant form,” they added.