A new preliminary study involving more than 5,000 genetic sequences of the coronavirus suggests one of the virus’s many mutations may be more contagious than the others, according to a report from The Washington Post.
The study, which has not been peer-reviewed, conducted by researchers from Houston Methodist Hospital, found the strain known as the D614G mutation was responsible for close to every coronavirus infection in Houston this summer, during Texas’s second wave of infections.
The mutation did not make the virus deadlier or change clinical outcomes, according to researchers.
All viruses mutate and most of the random changes to the genetic sequence are considered to be insignificant, however, researchers found people infected with this particular strain had higher viral loads in their upper respiratory tracts, allowing the virus to potentially spread more effectively.
David Morens, a virologist at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) who reviewed the study, told the Post the findings suggest the virus may have become more contagious and could possibly be responding to health measures such as social distancing and mask-wearing.
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“Wearing masks, washing our hands, all those things are barriers to transmissibility, or contagion, but as the virus becomes more contagious it statistically is better at getting around those barriers,” Morens told the newspaper, cautioning not to over-interpret the findings from a single study that has yet to be peer-reviewed.
He also said it’s possible the virus could eventually get around immunity when a vaccine is rolled out, similar to the flu.
“Although we don’t know yet, it is well within the realm of possibility that the coronavirus, when our population-level immunity gets high enough, this coronavirus will find a way to get around our immunity,” he said. “We’ll have to chase the virus and, as it mutates, we’ll have to tinker with our vaccine.”
The research is the latest in a series of studies suggesting the D614G mutation is more contagious than earlier versions of the original virus. The mutation has been dominant in almost all places in the U.S., Europe and Latin America.
A report last month claimed the mutation may be more infectious but less deadly than the original virus, as it has been associated with lower death rates.
But other researchers said the conclusion that the mutation is more contagious than others is premature.
“The study provides more evidence for what we already know about this mutation: That it’s the most common variant,” Emma Hodcroft, a geneticist at the Nexstrain project, told Business Insider. “That doesn’t mean the virus is effectively mutating.”
Hodcraft said her team of researchers that has been tracing the coronavirus’s genetic changes have yet to identify a mutation that would change how infectious or deadly the virus is, according to Business Insider.
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