Researchers continue to study the genetic makeup of the novel coronavirus as it moves across the globe. It’s been over six months since the first case of COVID-19 was reported in China, and it seems the disease is getting more infectious as time goes on. Scientists now say the virus is 10 times more likely to spread than it was in late 2019 when it first made the jump from animals to humans.
So, how does this affect our handling of the pandemic? Let’s find out.
Why is the Virus More Infectious?
According to a recent report from The Scripps Research Institute in Jupiter, Florida, the coronavirus that’s plaguing much of Europe and the Americas is 10 times more infectious than the one we saw late last year.
This is because the “spike protein” that the virus uses to attach itself to cells in the body is getting more resilient. It used to break off regularly when binding itself to cells in people’s airways, but now the spike protein is less likely to snap, helping it take root in the respiratory system more quickly. This allows the virus to replicate itself more quickly, increasing the speed of infection.
This mutated strain is called G614, which is slightly different from D614, the previously dominant strain of the virus. Researchers weren’t sure what to make of this version of the virus when they discovered it back in April, but it started popping up all over the globe, making it the new face of the pandemic.
There’s no evidence to suggest that this new form of the virus is making people any sicker, or any less sick, than the one in 2019.
By making the spike protein more stable, the virus seems to be compensating for certain weaknesses of the past. Viruses often evolve over time as they spread from one side of the world to another. The more it spreads, the more it can learn from previous mistakes and correct them going forward.
The spike protein can now latch on to ACE-2 inside a person’s airways much more easily, giving it entrance to the cells in the body. ACE-2 receptors are found on the surface of cells in the lungs and airways. They work with an enzyme called ACE (angiotensin-converting enzyme) to regulate blood pressure. The ability to infiltrate these receptors often speeds up the infectious process, leading to the onset of illness in some patients.
How Does This Compare to Previous Viruses?
Like any living organism, scientists say that the virus’s main goal is to survive and make copies of itself – not to make people sick. If the virus were to kill every host that it infects, it wouldn’t live very long. It needs the host to spread the disease to more individuals, so it can live as long as possible.
Past viruses tend to become less dangerous as they become more infectious. Instead of making people extremely ill, new dominant strains of the virus spread more easily to ensure its survival.
We may see less severe infections going forward. Here in the U.S., younger people now make up the bulk of infections. It’s unclear if the virus is getting less dangerous, or if it’s just making its way to less vulnerable members of society.
What This Says About the Pandemic
The U.S. is currently leading the world when it comes to confirmed coronavirus cases and deaths. And now, researchers say that’s not by accident. They believe China wasn’t as devastated by the pandemic back in 2019 and early 2020 because the virus had yet to evolve. As it leapt over oceans, the virus started becoming more stable, which helped it spread like wildfire in Europe, the U.S., and South America.
The new strain of the virus known as G614 seems to force out the older version whenever the two meet, which has also helped the virus spread much more quickly. As one member of The Scripps Research Institute said, “Wherever G614 entered a population, a rapid rise in its frequency followed, and in many cases G614 became the dominant local form in a matter of only a few weeks.”
Patients infected with the G614 strain tend to carry more of a viral load, which helps them pass it onto others. Infected patients need to go to great lengths to prevent the spread. This makes self-isolation, contact tracing, and testing all the more important. If someone has the virus and doesn’t know it, they could easily pass it onto dozens of others.
Keep this information in mind as you try to help contain the virus in and around your community.