Researchers in Florida said they believe their experiment has shown that the new coronavirus has mutated in a way that makes it more easily to infect human cells.
They said more research is needed to show whether this changes how the virus infects people, and whether the change has affected the course of the pandemic. But at least one researcher not involved in the study said it likely has done so, and the changes may explain why the virus has caused so many infections in the United States and Latin America.
The scientists at the Scripps Research Institute in Florida said the mutation affect the spike protein – a structure on the outside of the virus that it uses to get into cells. If the findings are confirmed, it would the first time someone has demonstrated the virus has changed in a significant way.
“Viruses with this mutation were much more infectious than those without the mutation in the cell culture system we used,” Scripps Research virologist Hyeryun Choe, who helped lead the study, said in a statement.
Just this week, the World Health Organization said the mutations seen so far in the new coronavirus had not made it more easily transmissible, nor had they made the virus more likely to cause serious illness.
Choe and colleagues ran a series of experiments in lab dishes that show a mutation called D614G gives the virus many more spikes, which in turn make it easier for it to get into cells. They’ve published their findings on a preprint server called BioRxiv. That means the work has not been reviewed by other experts in the field.
But Choe and colleagues did send their paper to William Haseltine, a virologist, biotechnology entrepreneur and chairman of Access Health International. Haseltine believes the findings explain the easy spread of coronavirus across the Americas.
“It is significant because it shows the virus can change, does change to its advantage and possibly to our disadvantage,” he told CNN. “It has done a good job so far of adapting to human culture.”