Mutated virus in US threatens vaccine effectiveness, says study

Updated 07 May 2020

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The new strain appears to be more contagious than the one that emerged in Wuhan. — AP/File
The new strain appears to be more contagious than the one that emerged in Wuhan. — AP/File

WASHINGTON: A new strain of the novel coronavirus in the United States is a mutated version and appears more contagious than the one that emerged in Wuhan, China, over four months ago, according to a new study released on Wednesday.

“Asian samples were completely dominated by the original Wuhan virus through mid-March, but by mid-March in Asian countries outside of China, the [new and mutated] form was clearly established and expanding,” stated a 33-page report published in BioRxiv, which promotes research in biological sciences.

The researchers warned that if the new coronavirus did not subside in summer like the seasonal flu, it could mutate further and potentially limit the effectiveness of the virus vaccines being developed by scientists around the world.

“There is clearly an urgent need to develop an effective vaccine against the virus, as well as antibody-based therapeutics,” the researchers said. Over 62 vaccine approaches are currently being explored, and a wide variety of vaccines are in development.

The study was conducted at the Los Alamos National Laboratory, funded by the US government to carry out research on national security issues and has an annual budget of about $3 billion.

The United States, which has already lost more than 73,000 people to this virus, is treating the Covid-19 pandemic as a national security crisis. The virus has also infected almost 1.25 million people in the US.

“To date we have identified fourteen mutations,” the researchers said in the report. “Mutations are considered in a broader … context … to provide an early warning system … that may confer selective advantages in transmission or resistance to interventions,” the report added.

The researchers said that one of the mutation spikes, identified as D614G, was of urgent concern. It began spreading in Europe in early February, and “when introduced to new regions it rapidly becomes the dominant form”.

The researchers also presented evidence of recombination between locally circulating strains, indicative of multiple strain infections.

These findings have important implications for transmission, pathogenesis, and immune interventions of this highly contagious virus, which has already killed more than 160,000 people across the globe and infected more than 3.7 million people.

However, viruses do tend to mutate and this study has not been peer-reviewed.

The research also pointed out three factors which made Covid-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus, lethal: “Human beings have no direct immunological experience with this virus, leaving us vulnerable to infection and disease; it is highly transmissible; and it has a high mortality rate.”

Published in Dawn, May 7th, 2020