LOS ALAMOS, New Mexico - A research study conducted at the Los Alamos National Laboratory examined mutations of the coronavirus SARS-CoV-2 and says a new strain found three months ago appears to have been spreading across the world and become dominant in the pandemic.
The researchers said they wanted to alert other scientists. They posted the study online, as many researchers are doing now to quickly share knowledge about SARS-CoV-2. The study has not undergone the typical, rigorous peer review that is usually done before publication.
Some say the results do raise interesting questions. Since the pandemic began, scientists have been collecting genomes of the new SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus from infected patients' samples around the world.
The Los Alamos National Laboratory study reviewed 6,000 genomes using the Global Initiative for Sharing All Influenza Data GISAID SARS-CoV-2 sequence database.
"From the data, it shows it may be even more contagious than the original strain found in China as well as many of the strains originally found in Italy," said Professor Fenyong Liu, an infectious disease specialist at UC Berkeley's School of Public Health who does research on the new virus and read the study. He says what's significant about the Los Alamos National Lab study is it focused on a so-called SPIKE protein that enables the virus to infect humans.
"The function of the SPIKE protein is to attach and then allow the virus to enter into the human cell," said Dr. Liu.
The Los Alamos team says they found 14 mutations, which prompted them to write a warning.
"The mutation Spike D614G is of urgent concern; it began spreading in Europe in early February, and when introduced to new regions it rapidly becomes the dominant form," said the study.
"This is very, very important that shows indeed the spike protein can change and then the virus can become more infectious, more dominant," said Dr. Liu.
The study says the new strain appears to have spread in the United States along the East Coast. California and the West Coast are not mentioned.
The study raises one big concern. Researchers say there are 62 vaccine approaches being developed for the new coronavirus. If the virus is significantly mutating, vaccines developed for a previous strain might not work.
Dr. Liu says while the study is interesting, it needs to be thoroughly reviewed and says despite the research being done globally, there is still a lot that is unknown about the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus.
"I should caution that the definition of strain is not really clear cut," said Dr. Liu, "It's a very, very dynamic situation. There's still so much we need to learn from the pandemic."
"Until we have a vaccine, no one is safe," Dr. Liu said.
The study did not find any evidence that the new strain is more deadly than the original coronavirus strain in China.
The study authors noted if the virus continues to circulate through the summer, it could continue to mutate, a problem in a world with little immunity and no vaccine.
This story was reported from Oakland, Calif.