SHEFFIELD, United Kingdom — Researchers tracking the coronavirus pandemic have discovered a new and more infectious strain of COVID-19. A new study says the mutation has already become the dominant strain of the virus that is still infecting people around the world.
Scientists call the mutated strain D614G. The study, published in the journal Cell, says this variation of COVID-19 creates a small but significant change to the “spike” protein which is found on the surface of the virus. That spike allows viruses to enter and infect human cells.
The study adds that changes to COVID-19, commonly spread through the air by coughing, is causing more of the virus to appear in a patient’s nose and throat. Prior to March, most of the world’s coronavirus cases were found to be part of the less infectious strain. Since then, D614G has quickly accounted for the majority of new cases.
More infectious, but not more deadly
Although researchers say the mutation has made the pandemic easier to spread, they don’t believe the virus is causing more severe symptoms.
“Data provided by our team in Sheffield suggested that the new strain was associated with higher viral loads in the upper respiratory tract of patients with COVID-19, meaning the virus’s ability to infect people could be increased,” Dr. Thushan de Silva of the University of Sheffield says in a statement. “Fortunately at this stage, it does not seem that viruses with D614G cause more severe disease.”
To this point, more than 500,000 patients have died from COVID-19. There have been approximately 11 million confirmed cases globally during the pandemic.
Global effort to track the D614G
Dr. de Silva worked with researchers from the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico and Duke University in North Carolina to trace this new coronavirus strain. Their research used samples published by the Global Initiative on Sharing All Influenza Data (GISAID).
The study says this discovery was possible because so many researchers around the world are making their findings public so quickly through GISAID.
“It’s remarkable to me … that this increase in infectivity was detected by careful observation of sequence data alone,” says Dr. Will Fischer of the Los Alamos National Laboratory.
The authors do stress that further lab tests on live cells are still necessary in order to gauge the full impact of the D614G strain.