As progress continues on developing a possible COVID-19 vaccine, a strain of the new coronavirus that experts warn could be more infectious has been detected by health authorities in Malaysia and the Philippines.
While some parts of Asia are beginning to see second waves of COVID-19 infections, Malaysia has largely managed to curb its coronavirus outbreak. As of Sunday, August 16, the country has reported 9,200 cases and 125 deaths.
Malaysia’s health chief Noor Hisham Abdullah said in a Facebook post on August 16 that the Institute for Medical Research in Kuala Lumpur detected a mutation of the SARS-CoV-2 virus in four new cases in the country. Three of the cases were linked to a cluster in the northwestern state of Kedah while one case was linked to a cluster in the southern town of Ulu Tiram.
The new strain of the virus has been dubbed the D614G mutation. Science Magazine reported on the mutation in July and said that its name comes from a change in the amino acid in position 614 from aspartic acid (abbreviated as D) to glycine (abbreviated as G).
In his Facebook post, the Malaysian health chief said that the variant has been found to be “10 times easier to infect other individuals.” He also posed the possibility that current vaccines undergoing trials across the world may not be effective in treating this recent mutation.
The mutated strain was also detected in the neighboring Philippines, which is now seeing the worst COVID-19 outbreak in all of Southeast Asia. As of Monday, August 17, the country has recorded over 161,000 confirmed cases and 2,665 deaths.
According to The Straits Times, the Philippine Genome Center in Quezon City found the new mutation in a small batch of recent positive cases.
"In the month of June, both the D614 as well as the G614 have been detected in a small sample of positive cases," the center said. “Although this information confirms the presence of G614 in the Philippines, we note that all the samples tested were from Quezon City and may not represent the mutational landscape for the whole country," it added.
The consequences of the new mutation are not yet clear.
According to an article by Yale University researcher Nathan Grubaugh and associates in the scientific journal Cell, the impact of the D614G mutation on transmission, disease, and vaccine development remains largely unknown.
Previous research by American biologist Bette Korber and her colleagues at Los Alamos National Laboratory found that the G614 variant has recently replaced D614 as the “dominant pandemic form.” Korber’s research hypothesized that the rapid spread of the new variant meant that it was more infectious than previous strains, though this has yet to be proven.
According to Grubaugh and his colleagues, there is so far no evidence to suggest that the D614G mutation will result in a more severe infection of the COVID-19 disease, though the global expansion of the mutation “means that this variant now is the pandemic.”
Kanta Subbarao, a virologist at the Doherty Institute at the University of Melbourne in Australia, told the Australian Broadcasting Network that viruses “almost never mutate to become more virulent.”
“There's no question that this coronavirus is bad, but its slow mutation rate gives us a really good shot at getting on top of it."