Coronavirus fact check: Has COVID-19 mutated into a more contagious virus, as new study claims?

A research paper released this week that suggests the COVID-19 virus has mutated and become more contagious has caused a stir in scientific circles and concern among the general public.

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The research paper from scientists at Los Alamos National Laboratory claims a strain of the novel coronavirus that emerged in Europe has become the dominant strain of the virus, and that it appears to be more infectious than the one that originated in Wuhan, China.

The study also said there was no evidence that people who contracted the version of the virus that had the mutation became any sicker or were more likely to be hospitalized than those who had the original version of the virus.

The paper posted by the laboratory has not been peer-reviewed, meaning it was presented to scientists to study, but has not been reviewed nor its results duplicated by other researchers.

The study is questioned

As soon as the report was released, it was questioned by some infectious disease researchers who said that while the findings may be noteworthy, they weren’t proved in the paper.

“There is a lot of speculation here,” Dr. Peter Hotez, co-director of Texas Children’s Hospital Center for Vaccine Development said of the Los Alamos report. “They have no experimental verification.”

Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health, told The Washington Post that the research paper “draws rather sweeping conclusions” about a mutant strain of COVID-19.

Other researchers say there is no evidence that another strain of the virus even exists.

Here is what we know about the research paper on the “mutant strain” of the new coronavirus and what scientists are saying about it.

What the study said

Scientists at the Los Alamos National Laboratory say they have identified a mutation of the original COVID-19 virus, and that the mutation appears to make that version of the virus more contagious than the original version of the virus.

The mutation, the study says, affects the virus’s “spike,” or the protein outgrowths that it uses to enter cells in the human body.

The mutation the laboratory dubbed D614G is the one the study focused on. In the COVID-19 virus, D614G changes one of the molecules that make up the spikes.

The virus version that contains D614G was identified as a “G” mutation of the virus in the study. The virus without this mutation is the “D” virus. The D virus is the virus that spread from Wuhan.

According to the study, the G version of the virus had not been seen much before early March. However, by April, it was the most identified version of the virus in the world, suggesting it may be more transmissible than the original D strain.

Here is what the Los Alamos Laboratory researchers say they found:

  • The mutated version of the virus appeared as early as February in Europe.
  • It migrated quickly to the East Coast of the United States.
  • It has been the dominant strain worldwide since mid-March.
  • It may make people vulnerable to a second round of coronavirus infection after they have seemingly recovered from an initial COVID-19 infection.
  • The G version is far more contagious than the original D version of the virus.
  • People did not get any sicker with the G version than the original version of the virus. It also did not show that people with the mutated strain were more likely to require hospitalization.
  • One part of the study showed that New York was hit with the Wuhan version of the virus around March 15, but within just days the mutated version had overtaken the original one as the dominant version of the virus in the state.
  • Los Alamos researchers have identified 14 mutations. They worked with scientists at Duke University and the University of Sheffield in England.

What other scientists are saying about the study

“The conclusions are overblown,” Lisa Gralinski of the University of North Carolina told The Atlantic about the study.

Gralinski, who specializes in the study of coronaviruses at UNC, said, “To say that you’ve revealed the emergence of a more transmissible form of SARS-CoV-2 without ever actually testing it isn’t the type of thing that makes me feel comfortable as a scientist.”

Other researchers echo Gralinski’s comments about whether a “mutant strain” of the virus even exists.

While viruses change and adapt as they spread, new strains are a different matter, The National Center for Biotechnology Information says. New strains of a virus represent a dramatic change in the structure of the virus.

“Not every mutation (of a virus) creates a different strain,” Nathan Grubaugh of Yale School of Medicine said.

Dr. Scott Gottlieb, the former head of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, also urged caution about the Los Alamos study. While he identified the mutation as a new strain, he said he has his doubts that the virus is now more transferable.

“It (the study) doesn’t prove that this new strain is, in fact, more infectious,” Gottlieb said on CNBC’s “Squawk Box.”

Gottlieb said other factors could make it seem that the mutated version of the virus is more infectious.

“The analysis could be confounded by the fact that this just became the dominant strain in Europe because it got into Europe early and then got into the United States from Europe,” Gottlieb said. “It really doesn’t prove anything.”

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