No, There Isn't A New, More Contagious Form of Coronavirus Spreading Across the U.S.

The coronavirus is mutating, but not enough for a new strain to develop and spread.
May 7, 2020, 12:51pm
coronavirus strain
The Yomiuri Shimbun via AP Images

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The coronavirus was bad enough before we had reports of a mutant strain of the virus rampaging across the U.S., spreading faster and more aggressively than the original and making people more susceptible to repeat infections. So here’s some good news: those reports aren’t true.

The reports were based on the findings of a study from scientists working at the Los Alamos National Laboratory, who concluded in an unpublished paper that has yet to be peer-reviewed that a new strain of the virus had become dominant in the U.S. and Europe.

But just as quickly as the hyperbolic reports spread across the internet this week, new research and a slew of coronavirus experts have come out to say that the conclusions drawn in the Los Alamos research cannot be backed up, and the world is still dealing with a single strain of the virus.

Research published by scientists at the University of Glasgow shows that patients globally have been infected with a single strain of the new coronavirus, officially known as SARS-CoV-2. And while they have been mutations in that virus — thousands of them in fact — none of them is significant enough to cause a change in how the virus spreads or infects people.

“Viruses, including the one causing COVID-19, naturally accumulate mutations – or changes – in their genetic sequence as they spread through populations,” the Glasgow researchers concluded. “However, most of these changes will have no effect on the virus biology or the aggressiveness of the disease they cause.”

Following reports of multiple strains of the coronavirus being spread globally, the scientists in Glasgow undertook an extensive analysis of the virus genomes and found that the detected mutations are “unlikely to have any functional significance, and importantly, don’t represent different virus types.”

As viruses spread and replicate in infected hosts, they typically generate mutations as they replicate. These mutations are normal for all viruses but do not represent a new strain of the virus.

Just as with every other virus, new strains of the new coronavirus will emerge, but it would be very surprising to see such changes this early in the lifespan of SARS-CoV-2. Scientists only label something a new strain if the new version differs significantly from the original.

The scientists in Glasgow have cataloged 7,237 mutations in the new coronavirus, and while that might sound like a lot, they say it is a relatively low rate of evolution for an RNA virus, and they expect more mutations will continue to accumulate as the pandemic continues.

Other scientists have agreed: The Atlantic spoke to four world-renowned infectious disease experts who all said that all the evidence still pointed to a single strain of coronavirus.

The conclusions [from the Los Alamos study] are overblown,” Lisa Gralinski from the University of North Carolina, one of the few scientists in the world who specializes in coronaviruses, told he Atlantic. “To say that you’ve revealed the emergence of a more transmissible form of SARS-CoV-2 without ever actually testing it isn’t the type of thing that makes me feel comfortable as a scientist.”

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Cover: Medical staffs wear some protective apparatuses to treat patients at the new coronavirus ward of Kawasaki Municipal Tama Hospital in Kawasaki City, Kanagawa Prefecture on May 7, 2020, amid an outbreak of the new coronavirus COVID-19. (The Yomiuri Shimbun via AP Images)