The rapid increase in the global presence of COVID-19 from Wuhan, China in within half a year has shown us how potent a simple virus can be transmitted despite coordinated mitigation efforts that were shown to be a little too late. With the right advances present at the right time, we now have enough information to question the evolution of viruses and viral pandemics, and thanks to a mutation found in the novel coronavirus strain, various questions are being asked worldwide.
This new mutation, titled D614G, is a vague evolution that the strain has undergone; the benefits and demerits of this mutation are unclear as of now, and are currently being researched across the world. This was first found in Malaysia, after three cases out of a cluster of forty-five were detected to have that mutation. This is speculated to have spread in the country after a restaurant owner returning from India breached the recommended fourteen-day quarantine. First detected in Europe, the D614G mutation has ever since been the dominant variant of SARS-CoV-2, found in the majority of swab samples taken from infected patients across the world.
Researchers have speculated that this mutation could have given the viral strain a biological edge, thereby enabling the disease to be spread across the world that much easier.
What is D614G?
D614G is a mutation situated within the protein of the novel coronavirus strain, SARS-CoV-2, and makes up the virus’ spike that it uses to break into the cells of living beings. Biologically, the mutation transforms the aspartic acid (D) at position 614 to glycine (G), therefore leading to its given name. Apart from this mutation, the virus strain has also undergone several other mutations as well, but none have been as prominent in clusters as D614G, which is being speculated to have helped in quickening the spread of the infection across the globe. Including China, this specific mutation seems to be “present predominantly, everywhere”, according to Dr. Bette Korber, a computational biologist and a population geneticist.
According to various specialists and experts, this mutation is concluded to be the dominant strain as whenever both strains of SARS-CoV-2 were found to be present, the one with the mutated D614G spike was found to be in much higher numbers than the regular novel coronavirus strain. Dr. Korber had published that the D614G variant has become the pandemic in his July 2020 paper on the coronavirus. He speculates that the new mutated strain may be so predominant, it could have been the very beginning of the pandemic since its genesis in the UK and the east coast of the USA. “While evidence is mounting that this mutation is not neutral, it does not necessarily change how we should think about the virus and its spread”, states his paper.
The Malaysian authorities, after this finding, have revealed that this mutation could be ten times more infectious than the regular novel strain, and can be traced back to various South Asian countries – this is an implication that in some countries, the rate of infectiousness has been extremely high since the very beginning. Due to the novelty of this discovery, it is still too early to predict the consequences of this mutation. As of now, everyone is puzzled by how a single person breaking his quarantine led to the infection of forty-five people, and is being attributed to D614G.
The Dangers of This Mutation:
It has been found that in pockets of various densely-populated cities – including New York and parts of Italy – the strain has been in circulation for months at most. At one point, they were some of the worst affected cities across the world, witnessing a staggering rate of hospitalizations and mortality rates; the strain is now notorious for exposing a large part of the global population to the extreme dangers that we can be exposed to.
There are various questions being asked around by scientists, including how much of a real threat this strain poses to humankind as a whole. With researches popping up left and right about this mutation, contrasting studies and results are being published worldwide, with suggestions including that the D614G mutation could be the reason behind the speedy spread of the virus, and that the mutation is likely to be as random as any other viral mutation, and might affect only a small number of people; the latter results have been published despite early sightings of the mutated strain being accounted for almost 97% of all sightings of all strains of SARS-CoV-2.
According to a study published in Cell, a scientific journal, scientists have observed that out of all the thousand but one samples tested across the UK, patients carrying the mutated strain of the coronavirus were found to carry a higher viral load than those afflicted by the regular novel strain. With other studies publishing that higher viral loads could imply greater effective infectivity patterns, it has been speculated that unlike the original novel strain (dubbed Wuhan 1), the mutated strain is ten times as infectious, infecting up to four cell lines. These published results have since been disputed, with many stating that a confined lab study could possibly not simulate real world conditions, making it difficult to correlate the mutation with actual viral spread present amongst humans currently.
Should You Be Worried?
While the mutated viral strain has been observed to infect an increased number of people within a given cluster populace, scientists have also observed that the higher viral load of the strain did not correlate to the increased severity of the disease. While the increased infectivity might pose a problem in containment, it does not result in an increased fatality for people infected by the strain. This result is corroborated by the evidence that increased circulation of the D614G mutated strain in parts of the UK, the US, and Italy did not lead to a jump in hospitalizations within the regions.
This mutation, while not increasingly deadly, has led to questioning the challenges being faced with respect to vaccine development, as vaccinations are produced out of early-period isolated strains of the virus. There are questions popping up about vaccinations against mutations and varying strains of the virus, and research is being conducted globally in order to find definitive answers for them. This, at worst, might be a simple bump in getting vaccination doses manufactured and delivered to the masses. As long as mutations are not aggressive enough to send the virus down an infectivity spiral, vaccines work toward protecting beings from future infections. Biologists have confirmed that no changes have been observed so far in the ACE2 receptor system, which is the target receptor for the human immune system to recognize in order to fight the virus away.