A new study led by scientists at Los Alamos National Laboratory with assistance from Duke University and the University of Sheffield in England, concludes a new strain of coronavirus appeared in February in Europe, spread to the East Coast of the United States, and has become the dominant strain across the world since mid-March.
The new strain may also allow people to be reinfected after an initial bout with the virus.
To speed up collaboration and dissemination, the report was posted on BioRxiv, a researchers website that lets them post their work before it is peer reviewed.
The early warning was needed so vaccine and drug development will be effective against the new strain.
The virus had been moving around the world since late-2019.
This new strain would explain how infections in China were slower and more easily controlled than those in Europe and the United States.
The report was based on a computational analysis of more than 6,000 coronavirus sequences from around the world.
14 mutations were identified that occurred among nearly 30,000 base pairs of RNA.
The mutation in question is referred to as D614G and is responsible for a change in the virus’ spikes.
Study leader, Bette Krober, wrote on Facebook, “This is hard news, but please don’t only be disheartened by it. Our team at LANL was able to document this mutation and its impact on transmission only because of a massive global effort of clinical people and experimental groups, who make new sequences of the virus (SARS-CoV-2) in their local communities available as quickly as they possibly can.”
The study noted that “D614G is increasing in frequency at an alarming rate, indicating a fitness advantage relative to the original Wuhan strain that enables more rapid spread.”
Other researches advised caution until the report is peer reviewed. Sergei Pond, an evolutionary biologist at Temple University, said, “I don’t think they provide evidence to claim transmissibility enhancement. In order to establish this, you’d need direct competition between strains in the same geographic area.”
Still unknown is whether this mutant virus could account for regional variations in how hard COVID-19 is hitting different parts of the world.