Don’t Panic Over the Latest Coronavirus Mutation Headlines
Understanding the recent news about the D614G mutation
Recent alarming headlines raised concerns that a new mutation in SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes Covid-19, was making it somehow more potent. A Twitter moment blared: “More infectious coronavirus strain found in Malaysia.” Bloomberg’s headline declared: “Southeast Asia Detects Mutated Virus Strain Sweeping the World.” Meanwhile, Malaysia’s director general of health Noor Hisham Abdullah said in a Facebook post on August 15 that the mutated form could be 10 times more infectious.
As is often the case with scary headlines, these did not tell the whole story and are worth taking with a hefty pinch of salt. The mutated form of the virus has been the dominant form in Europe, the United States, and Oceania for several months, and it has more recently emerged in Asia.
The mutation in question is known as D614G, which refers to a single change in the amino acid sequence that makes up the genetic information of the virus. The amino acid that’s usually at position 614, aspartic acid (known as “D”) is switched out for glycine (known as “G”). And while it’s important to take note of changes like that, there’s currently no evidence suggesting that it makes the virus more contagious and dangerous.
Or, as Bill Hanage, PhD, associate professor at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health’s Center for Communicable Disease Dynamics, put it to the Coronavirus Blog: “It’s not the thing to be writing, ‘Oh my god, siren, siren, siren.’”
Mutations occur naturally as viruses replicate. Each time a virus does so, it has to copy its genome, and sometimes this process results in errors. Some mutations are “neutral” and have no effect whatsoever, some are bad and kill the virus before it has a chance to replicate, and others do have an effect that changes the virus’s characteristics. But as Nathan Grubaugh, PhD, of the Yale School of Public Health, explained in a previous article I wrote for Elemental, for a mutation in a single viral particle to have an effect on an ongoing outbreak, it has to be passed on to future copies of the virus on a large scale. And for that to happen, the mutation must improve the virus’s ability to survive and replicate.