A study, still under peer review, has found that particular strands of coronavirus with a small mutation gain a significant boost in their ability to infect cells.
Researchers from the Scripps Research Institute in Florida, USA say that the genetic mutation, D614G in two variants of coronavirus found in the U.S. and Europe increases its infectivity.
In lab tests, researchers compared the infectivity of the non-mutated and mutated viruses with the help of a cell culture system. They found that viruses with the mutation, “were much more infectious,” explains the senior author of the study, virologist Hyeryun Choe in an article by Scripps Research.
Dr Choe explains that the mutation increases the number of functional spikes on the viral surface by 4 or 5 times. The spikes are seen in the coronavirus structure that gives it the crown-like appearance. An increase in the number of spikes due to mutation D614G, in turn, increases the viruses’ ability to bind and infect cells.
Additionally, the mutation also has given more flexibility to the spike which has made it easier for the virus to stay intact while infecting a cell. Therefore, the researchers also say that the mutated virus is much more stable.
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Co-author of the study, Michael Farzan, co-chairman of the Scripps Research Department of Immunology and Microbiology says, “Over time, it has figured out how to hold on better and not fall apart until it needs to. The virus has, under selection pressure, made itself more stable.”
Researchers, in their study, used harmless viruses that were engineered to produce key coronavirus proteins. They also found that the immune factors of the serum obtained from the infected people worked equally well against both the engineered viruses with and without the mutation. Researchers think that this is indicative that vaccine candidates in development might work against variants with or without the mutation.
They also noted that further epidemiological studies are needed to understand the increased transmissibility. Also, the research only focuses on the infectivity of the mutated virus and not the severity of symptoms in infected people or mortality.
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