Evidence Builds That an Early Mutation Made the Pandemic Harder to Stop

Scientists were initially skeptical that a mutation made the coronavirus more contagious. But new research has changed many of their minds.

By James Glanz, Benedict Carey and Hannah Beech

As the coronavirus swept across the world, it picked up random alterations to its genetic sequence. Like meaningless typos in a script, most of those mutations made no difference in how the virus behaved.

But one mutation near the beginning of the pandemic did make a difference, multiple new findings suggest, helping the virus spread more easily from person to person and making the pandemic harder to stop.

The mutation, known as 614G, was first spotted in eastern China in January and then spread quickly throughout Europe and New York City. Within months, the variant took over much of the world, displacing other variants.

For months, scientists have been fiercely debating why. Researchers at Los Alamos National Laboratory argued in May that the variant had probably evolved the ability to infect people more efficiently. Many were skeptical, arguing that the variant may have been simply lucky, appearing more often by chance in large epidemics, like Northern Italy’s, that seeded outbreaks elsewhere.

But a host of new research — including close genetic analysis of outbreaks and lab work with hamsters and human lung tissue — has supported the view that the mutated virus did in fact have a distinct advantage, infecting people more easily than the original variant detected in Wuhan, China.

How the Mutation Spread

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