Scientists in Houston on Wednesday released a study of more than 5,000 genetic sequences of the coronavirus, which reveals the virus’s continual accumulation of mutations, one of which may have made it more contagious.
That mutation is associated with a higher viral load among patients upon initial diagnosis, the researchers found.
The study, which has not been peer-reviewed, was posted Wednesday on the preprint server MedRxiv. It appears to be the largest single aggregation of genetic sequences of the virus in the United States. A larger batch of sequences was published this month by scientists in the United Kingdom, and, like the Houston study, concluded that a mutation that changes the structure of the “spike protein” on the surface of the virus may be driving the outsize spread of that strain.
The new report did not find that these mutations have made the virus deadlier. All viruses accumulate genetic mutations, and most are insignificant, scientists say. Coronaviruses such as SARS-CoV-2, which causes the illness covid-19, are relatively stable as viruses go, because they have a proofreading mechanism as they replicate.
But every mutation is a roll of the dice, and with transmission so widespread in the United States – which continues to see tens of thousands of new, confirmed infections daily – the virus has had abundant opportunities to change, potentially with troublesome consequences, said study author James Musser of Houston Methodist Hospital.
“We have given this virus a lot of chances,” Musser told The Washington Post. “There is a huge population size out there right now.”
Scientists from Weill Cornell Medicine, the University of Chicago, Argonne National Laboratory and the University of Texas at Austin also contributed to the study. (Source: The Washington Post)