- An increasing number of coronavirus studies looking at the most significant mutation so far show that the D614G strain is more infectious than the original Wuhan strain.
- The D614G mutation originates from eastern China and is responsible for the COVID-19 outbreaks that hit Europe and New York City early in the pandemic.
- Some researchers think that the increased infectiveness of D614G turned the outbreak into a pandemic.
A year after the novel coronavirus virus started spreading in China, the world still doesn’t know how the pandemic started. What was the animal that first passed the pathogen to a human host? When did it happen?
China has never addressed those questions, choosing to deflect blame and even suggest the virus might have originated elsewhere before reaching the country. The latest such idea came a few weeks ago when China wondered whether the virus was imported to Wuhan via frozen food packaging from a different nation. But China has no proof to back up such claims, and the incoming World Health Organization investigation might shed more light on the virus’s origin. But researchers who have tracked the virus from the moment it was discovered say that the coronavirus mutation responsible for the pandemic’s severity came from China.
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A new report in The New York Times focuses on a variety of genetic studies that analyzed the D614G mutation of the SARS-CoV-2 virus. Scientists have known about this particular strain since spring. At the time, some researchers said that D614G made the virus more infectious by allowing it to bind more effectively to cells than the original Wuhan strain. Others disagreed. Public health officials addressed the mutation in the past, including Dr. Anthony Fauci and the WHO. They all acknowledged that the mutation made the virus even more infectious, but that didn’t mean the mutated strain was deadlier than the original strain.
Several months and plenty of studies later, more researchers agree that the D614G mutation improved the virus’s ability to infect human hosts. That has made the pandemic even harder to control.
The mutation was first spotted in eastern China in January, according to available data from genomic sequencing. The strain then spread quickly throughout Europe and New York City, The Times reports. The strain needed only a few months to take over the world. The D614G mutation displaced other variants and eventually returned to Asia.
The new research shows that the mutated virus has been infecting people more easily than the original variant from Wuhan. Experiments on hamsters showed the D614G strain would pass more easily between animals than the original strain. Lab experiments also showed D614G is more efficient at infecting cells.
Researchers from the UK showed that the D614G outbreaks grew far faster than those caused by the original strain. That data showed that the D614G mutation gives the virus roughly a 20% advantage in its exponential growth rate.
The report also mentions that there is no new evidence to suggest that the D614G mutation causes more severe symptoms. It also says that states that have been able to contain the original COVID-19 outbreak had similar success with the D614G variant. But it also notes that the mutation explains why some states experienced a more pronounced second wave, as it was the D614G mutation that was doing more damage. Vietnam and Thailand fared well in containing the first strain but were hit harder by the D614G version later on.
It’s worth noting that the D614G mutation isn’t resistant to vaccines. The mutation has been the dominant strain globally through most Phase 2 and Phase 3 trials, so the current volunteers are actually facing this particular strain in most countries where vaccines are tested.
“When all is said and done, it could be that this mutation is what made the pandemic,” David Engelthaler, a geneticist at the Translational Genomics Research Institute in Arizona, told The Times.
Researchers will continue to track the virus’s mutations, which will be vital when it comes to stopping future outbreaks and ensuring that the vaccines can help us beat the virus. More research could also explain how the virus evolved in animals before jumping to humans, assuming the virus’s origin is eventually discovered.