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Making Sense of Coronavirus Mutations

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Making Sense of Coronavirus Mutations

Different SARS-CoV-2 strains haven’t yet had a major impact on the course of the pandemic, but they might in future.


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Scientists are studying SARS-CoV-2 strains to find out if mutations could impact the worldwide pandemic.

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Research teams around the world are studying mutations in the SARS-CoV-2 virus to discover whether it’s becoming more deadly and contagious. The mutations happen slowly, as is typical for coronaviruses. Since most humans are not yet immune to it, scientists think the virus is not currently threatened enough to evolve other than by chance. Researchers hope to pinpoint better ways to attack the virus with antibodies and vaccines, before it adapts and mutates in more concerning ways.


As SARS-CoV-2 spreads around the world, one gene mutation may help the virus penetrate cells.

Virologist David Montefiori, who spent years studying HIV mutations, leads a team scouring thousands of COVID-19 genetic sequences to identify significant mutations. One standout was D614G, a strain of the virus containing a genetic mutation that helps SARS-CoV-2 invade cells. The team published a report in April 2020 warning that “D614G is increasing in frequency at an alarming rate.” This mutated COVID lineage, established in Europe, the United States, Canada and Australia, was said to be a more contagious form of the disease than the original Wuhan, China strain. A second version of the paper eliminated the word “alarming,” but scientists remain intrigued.

Some experiments found that D614G infects cells more efficiently. Others suggest that the variant may allow vaccines and antibody therapies to work better. Many believe the increase in mutation presence is entirely due to natural selection, and may not result in increased transmission. None of the studies so far proves that D614G is a key to controlling the pandemic, or that it means anything at ...

About the Author

Ewen Callaway is a London-based writer for Nature.

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