What’s the Deal With the Story About the Mutant Coronavirus?
Understanding the debate around a sensational — and controversial — article
It was impossible not to click on the Los Angeles Times headline published Tuesday morning: “A mutant coronavirus has emerged, even more contagious than the original.” With its close-up photo of a flame-colored SARS-CoV-2 particle, the story raised fears that the pandemic was going to get even worse.
But soon after, researchers and science journalists quickly condemned the article for overblowing the science and spreading misinformation.
The article — written by Ralph Vartabedian, a longtime national correspondent for the Los Angeles Times — was based on a preprint article published to bioRxiv, a repository for papers that haven’t yet been peer reviewed.
Led by researchers from the Los Alamos National Laboratory, the study established an “early warning” pipeline to determine how the coronavirus was evolving over time so that scientists could identify a potentially dangerous mutation if it arose. The authors claim their computational analysis-based method identified 14 mutations in the virus’s “spike” protein (a key part of infection) that have accumulated during the pandemic, and they single out one mutation as being of “urgent concern.” Bette Korber, PhD, a veteran computational biologist who’s well respected for her work on developing an HIV vaccine, led the team.
Scientists have raised major issues with the coverage of this study in the L.A. Times, not only because it rather lazily relied on quotes from Korber’s Facebook page, but also — and most crucially — for its alarmist tone and mischaracterization of the non-peer-reviewed study as established scientific work. (A banner on bioRxiv reminds readers that studies that haven’t been peer-reviewed “should not be… reported in news media as established information.”) The first line of the L.A. Times article claims the strain containing that mutation “appears to be more contagious than the versions that spread in the early days of the Covid-19 pandemic.” But as exasperated scientists noted online, this claim is unsupported by the evidence presented in the study, suggesting that both Vartabedian and the authors of the study made some key errors.