Beware: Contrary to expectations, COVID-19 may have mutated into a more virulent strain

Beware: Contrary to expectations, COVID-19 may have mutated into a more virulent strain
India’s recovery rate from the COVID-19 infection has now climbed to an encouraging 31.15% with 20,917 people having recovered across the country so far, Union Health Ministry said on Monday. @Shutterstock

Most virulent viruses mutate and along the way they lose their potency and gradually become less threatening to humans. But this may not be the case with COVID-19.

Written by Jahnavi Sarma |Published : May 6, 2020 10:42 AM IST

As India gets ready to gradually come out of the unprecedented country-wide lockdown, experts are worried that this will lead to a spike in COVID-19 cases. But as some have pointed out, life needs to go on. It all depends on individuals now to practice the preventive guidelines and keep themselves safe from this deadly disease. In India, the number of positive cases has spiked to 49,391. Globally there are now more than 3,489,053 confirmed COVID-19 cases.

Till date, there is no cure or vaccine for this disease. But scientists are working against time to develop one at the earliest. Trials are going on at different places around the world for the same. But this is a complex and totally unknown strain of coronavirus. Scientists don't have any data to fall back on. This is coming in the way of finding a quick cure. Moreover, viruses mutate and so does this virus. This is another concern that most experts share.

Mutations are normal

Viruses always mutate. Most virulent virus mutate and along the way they lose their potency and gradually become less threatening to humans. Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, this is one hope that scientists have been clinging to. They were hopeful and most certainly believed that the new variant of coronavirus that causes COVID-19 will become less contagious as time goes by and, by the end of it, will be less threatening to the human species. However, this new contagion behaves in an unpredictable manner and this continues to confound experts at every step. Just when they think they have finally got to know the virus, it mutates and throws something new at them. This is coming in the way of finding an effective cure to the disease.

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Experts fear dangerous mutation

Now, researchers at the US-based Los Alamos National Laboratory has identified a new, highly potent strain of coronavirus that has spread globally and is more contagious than the virus in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic. The Los Alamos team, along with researchers from Duke University and the University of Sheffield in England, identified 14 mutations.

Scientists who posted their report on BioRxiv say that this new strain appeared in February in Europe, migrated to the US East Coast and has been the dominant strain across the world since mid-March. This is not a peer-reviewed study. According to researchers, this new mutation may make people vulnerable to a second infection after a first bout with the disease. The mutation affects the now infamous spikes on the exterior of the coronavirus, which allow it to enter human respiratory cells, they say. They have now developed an analysis pipeline to facilitate real-time mutation tracking in SARS-CoV-2. They will focus initially on the Spike (S) protein because it mediates infection of human cells and is the target of most vaccine strategies and antibody-based therapeutics, say researchers.

Early warning will help, researchers

In light of this new finding, researchers admit that there is an urgent need for an early warning. This will help vaccines manufacturers around the globe to ready themselves to take on this new form of the deadly pathogen. Though researchers say that the new strain is way more infectious, they are not exactly sure why. This is a cause for concern because, as the researchers point out, when viruses with this mutation enter a population, they rapidly begin to take over the local epidemic and become more contagious.