Coronavirus mutation detected by American research team

Scientists and researchers work on a potential vaccine for COVID-19 at Pfizer’s laboratory in Pearl River, New York. (Reuters)
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Updated 07 May 2020

Coronavirus mutation detected by American research team

  • Scientists at New Mexico laboratory suggest new strain could be more infectious

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.”

BACKGROUND

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 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.


Two accomplices in Kenya’s Westgate attack jailed for 33 and 18 years

Updated 14 min 39 sec ago

Two accomplices in Kenya’s Westgate attack jailed for 33 and 18 years

  • Mohamed Ahmed Abdi and Hassan Hussein Mustafa, both 31, were found guilty on October 7 of conspiring with and supporting the four assailants
  • The convicted men were in regular contact with the attackers who at midday on September 21, 2013, stormed the upscale Westgate mall in the Kenyan capital

NAIROBI: A Kenyan court Friday handed prison terms of 33 and 18 years respectively to two men accused of conspiring with the Al-Shabab extremists who attacked Nairobi’s Westgate shopping mall in 2013, killing 67 people.

Mohamed Ahmed Abdi and Hassan Hussein Mustafa, both 31, were found guilty on October 7 of conspiring with and supporting the four assailants from the Somalia-based extremist group who died in what was then Kenya’s worst terrorist attack in 15 years.

The accused asked the judge for leniency, saying they had already served seven years behind bars and had family to care for.

“Despite mitigation by their defense lawyers on their innocence, the offense committed was serious, devastating, destructive, that called for a punishment by the court,” Chief Magistrate Francis Andayi told a Nairobi courtroom.

He sentenced the men to 18 years for conspiracy and 18 for supporting extremists, but ordered they serve both terms together. Abdi was also given an additional 15 years for two counts of possessing extremist propaganda material on his laptop.

He will serve 26 years and Mustafa 11, taking into account their pre-trial detention.

The convicted men were in regular contact with the attackers who at midday on September 21, 2013, stormed the upscale Westgate mall in the Kenyan capital and began throwing grenades and firing indiscriminately on shoppers and business owners.

A four-day siege ensued — much of it broadcast live on television — during which Kenyan security forces tried to flush out the gunmen and take back the high-end retail complex.

Although there was no specific evidence Abdi and Mustafa had provided material help, the court was satisfied their communication with the attackers amounted to supporting the armed rampage, and justified the guilty verdict for conspiracy.

The marathon trial began in January 2014. A third accused was acquitted of all charges.
The Westgate attack was claimed by Al-Shabab in retaliation for Kenya intervening military over the border in Somalia, where the extremist group was waging a bloody insurgency against the fragile central government.

Kenya is a major contributor of troops to the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM), which in 2011 drove Al-Shabab out of Mogadishu and other urban strongholds after a months-long offensive.

In a car the attackers drove to Westgate, police found evidence of newly-activated SIM cards used by the gunmen. Their communications were traced, including calls to Mohamed Ahmed Abdi and Hassan Hussein Mustafa.

A fourth defendant, Adan Mohammed Abdikadir, was acquitted in early 2019 for lack of evidence.

The Westgate attack was the deadliest incident of violent extremism on Kenyan soil since the 1998 bombing of the US embassy in Nairobi, which killed 213 people.

But since the assault on the shopping complex, Al-Shabab has perpetrated further atrocities in Kenya against civilian targets.

In April 2015, gunmen entered Garissa University and killed 148 people, almost all of them students. Many were shot point blank after being identified as Christians.

In January 2019, the militants struck Nairobi again, hitting the Dusit Hotel and surrounding offices and killing 21 people.

Al-Shabab warned in a January statement that Kenya “will never be safe” as long as its troops were stationed in Somalia, and threatened further attacks on tourists and US interests.

That same month, Al-Shabab attacked a US military base in northeast Kenya in a cross-border raid, killing three Americans and destroying a number of aircraft.