A report, published by researchers at the Los Alamos National Laboratory, notes that the rapid and wide spread of Covid-19 provides the virus with “ample opportunity” to mutate in an advantageous way. One particular mutation, called Spike D614G, is “of urgent concern”, according to the authors.
It began spreading in Europe in early February, and quickly became the most dominant form of the virus.
In addition, the report notes that the mutation appears to be replacing the original Wuhan form of the virus.
Scientists noted that although they do not know for sure what is driving the “selective sweep”, the rapid spread would be consistent with “increased infectivity.”
The report notes that virus mutations – which are common in other illnesses such as the flu – can be considered by scientists to provide “an early warning system” for mutations that might be able to spread more easily or avoid vaccines.
A 3D render of the virus – scientists think they have found a variation that may be more infectious.
The report summary notes: “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.
“Also, we present evidence of recombination between locally circulating strains, indicative of multiple strain infections.
“These finding [sic] have important implications for SARS-CoV-2 transmission, pathogenesis and immune interventions.”
The report was published before being peer-reviewed in an effort to speed up collaboration with other scientists.
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The researchers say that the new form of the virus has become dominant across Europe.
The LA Times reports that the authors felt an “urgent need” to provide researchers with an early warning.
But this has led to some concerns among some observers.
Bill Hanage, an associate professor at the Harvard TH Chan School of Public Health, said on Twitter that the claims made by the paper “are suspect, to say the least”.
He did not dismiss the idea that Covid-19 has been mutating.
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A street in Wuhan, where the virus is believed to have originated.
He noted: “Viruses and other pathogens can and do evolve to evade our immune systems, and this can make it hard to develop a vaccine. This is why we need a vaccine for the flu each year.”
But he said that the reason why this particular strain of virus has become dominant in Europe could be a simple case of luck, rather than being a stronger strain, necessarily.
He wrote: “We need to distinguish between selection, in which a variant becomes more common because it leaves more descendants, and founder effects in which a variant becomes more common because it was fortunate rolling the dice [sic].
Researchers – not pictured – say they published the study as a matter of urgency.
“By that, I mean that this variant might have been lucky and got introduced to places outside Wuhan and different approaches to social distancing early on.
He added that the dominance of the mutated strain in some areas “may well reflect a population bottleneck, in which it happens to be the one that gets into the (relatively inattentive) European population and then spreads like wildfire.
“That’s what I think happened,” he explained, noting that this was an opinion and not “science”.
Mr Hanage also warned against being too concerned with mutations in the virus at the present time because, as there is not a Covid-19 vaccine currently available, the virus would have to be “awfully lucky to have landed on the escape mutation” for “imaginary” vaccines so early on.