LONDON: Researchers in the US said in a report that they have identified a mutated form of COVID-19 that has swept the globe in the past few months, and could herald a more dangerous strain.
Scientists at Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) in New Mexico added that they have classified 14 separate mutations of COVID-19 in virus spike proteins, and that one — Spike D614G — could already be sweeping across the US and Europe.
According to the report, a version of the disease carrying Spike D614G was first identified by researchers in Europe in February, and suggested it was able to outcompete the original strain that emerged in the Chinese city of Wuhan in late 2019.
More than 6,000 samples studied by the LANL team have since shown that it may have quickly become the West’s most dominant strain of COVID-19, and possibly the rest of the world’s as well.
“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,” said the LANL study’s lead author Dr. Bette Korber. “When viruses with this mutation enter a population, they rapidly begin to take over the local epidemic, thus they are more transmissible.”
The research paper on Spike D614G has controversially been made publicly available before it has even been peer-reviewed, as the team behind it said the findings are of “urgent concern.”
But other scientists have warned of the danger of releasing research into the public domain that has not been subjected to peer scrutiny.
The team itself has admitted that there is no definitive proof yet that the prevalence of the mutated strain in samples showed that it was the cause of the more aggressive spread of the virus, and that further research would be needed to prove it was.
The authors said they felt compelled to publish their work early due to what they felt was Spike D614G’s “vital importance both in terms of viral infectivity and as an antibody target.”
What makes the mutation potentially so dangerous is that the spike protein it occurs in is the part of the virus being targeted by most scientists trying to find vaccines and other treatments for COVID-19.
Spike proteins are molecules that viruses use to attach themselves to human and animal cells. Spike D614G’s particular mutation centers on this process, which the LANL report said relies on two methods: The “receptor-binding domain … a kind of grappling hook that grips on to host cells,” and “the cleavage site … a molecular can opener that allows the virus to crack open and enter host cells.”
The report said it is unclear as yet how the mutation occurred. A successful, aggressive mutation in the spike protein could render much of the work already done by the international scientific community useless, should Spike D614G prove resistant to those prototype treatments.