The Surprising Thing Making Coronavirus Up to 10 Times More Infectious
A new mutation showing up in COVID-19 patients could spread even more quickly than its previous form.
There’s no denying just how contagious coronavirus is—in the United States alone, 2,085,769 people have been infected, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). And while it’s already established that coronavirus can be transmitted from person to person through infected respiratory droplets or contaminated surfaces, new research suggests that a recently identified mutation of the virus may make it even more infectious.
According to a preprint of a June 2020 study from Scripps Research, the new mutation significantly increases the number of functional spikes on the virus that allow it to attach to human cells and give the virus the crown-like appearance from which its name is derived. In the new mutation, dubbed D614G, the coronavirus has four to five times as many functional spikes, significantly increasing its chances of infecting a potential host. The mutation not only adds spikes to the virus, but also increases the spikes’ flexibility, enabling viral particles to remain unbroken during transmission. This may make the virus up to 10 times more infectious than its current form, the study’s researchers concluded.
As the virus continues to spread, researchers are discovering the D614G mutation in more and more infected people. According to the Scripps study's researchers, the GenBank database—which collects DNA sequences, including those from coronavirus patients—had no reports of the D614G mutation in February. The following month, one in four samples had it; by May, 70 percent of GenBank’s samples were D614G-positive.
However, while the Scripps study indicates that the mutation may make the virus spread more quickly, there’s no research to suggest that it will necessarily make symptoms more severe or make the virus deadlier among those infected.
Physician Leann Poston, MD, of Invigor Medical, also notes that while the Scripps study indicates an increase in the number of viral particles, or viral load, among people who have the D614G mutation, there are two additional mutations associated with D614G— on the nsp3 and RdRp proteins—that could have affected these numbers, as well. Poston also notes that the study's findings may not translate outside the lab. "A mutation in the Ebola virus showed increased infectivity in the laboratory, but no change in infectivity when studied in animals," she says.
So while these results may be frightening, Poston says that more research is needed before any new behavioral recommendations based on the virus’ mutation are made. So keep washing your hands, wearing your mask when you can’t maintain six feet of distance between you and anyone you don’t live with, and try not to worry too much—for the time being, at least. And if you want to be prepared when you head outdoors, make sure you have these Three Items the CDC Says You Should Have on Hand When Leaving the House.