Duke researchers help discover gene mutation that spreads the coronavirus faster

DURHAM, N.C. -- Researchers at Duke University's School of Medicine helped discover a new strain of coronavirus.

Dr. David Montefiori, a professor of surgery who also serves as Director of the Laboratory for AIDS Vaccine Research and Development, explained it was caused by a gene mutation.

"We're looking at the genetic sequence of the virus, and in particular we're looking at the sequence of the spike protein. This is a protein that's on the surface of a virus, that the virus uses to attach to a cell, and to get into a cell," explained Dr. Montefiori.

Scientists from around the world sequence isolates from infected people and deposit those sequences into a central database which was originally designed for the flu virus.

"Once those sequences are deposited into the database, scientists have access to those sequences to analyze them. And my colleague at Los Alamos National Laboratory Dr. Bette Korber, who is an expert at analyzing sequences and we have been collaborating together for many years on HIV, she immediately started analyzing the spike sequences in that database that were coming in from around the world. And we were both interested in whether or not mutations might arise that showed evidence of spreading in the human population - that many people would show evidence of being infected with a virus that carries a mutation in it."

Dr. Montefiori explained how fast the mutation spread.

"(Dr. Korber) noticed this mutation that we call D614G in the spike protein that was found in about six people in very early March. So it became a mutation of interest because of showing some evidence of spreading, suggesting that it might have a fitness advantage. And within weeks, it was found in more and more people. As more and more sequences came into the database, more and more of those sequences had this mutation. And it just kept spreading. By the end of April, it was now the dominant strain of the virus globally," said Dr. Montefiori.

While researchers do not believe this strain is more dangerous than the original strain, there is still cause for concern.

"It appears to spread faster. And that's probably why the virus liked the mutation and why it's so dominant because it provided an advantage to the virus to spread easier. And that's what a virus wants to do to survive. It wants to be able to transmit," said Dr. Montefiori.

Dr. Montefiori did not believe this mutation is the reason why the United States has so many more cases, hospitalizations, and deaths than any other country.

"For example you look at Italy - this is the dominant form of the virus in Italy, it was the dominant form almost from the very beginning, and things were very bad over there. And they have it under control. And the same is true for other parts of the world," Dr. Montefiori explained.

He added that treatments for COVID-19 typically target other parts of the virus, so the mutation should not have any impact.

The focus is now on determining whether the mutation could affect a potential vaccine, which was based on the original strain found in Wuhan, China.

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"We have data that - very encouraging data - that this mutation is not going to have an effect on immunotherapeutics and the vaccines. But it's preliminary data," said Dr. Montefiori, who first shared this information with ABC11.

Researchers will continue to run experiments before submitting the findings for publication.

Dr. Montefiori explained the discovery of the mutation reinforces the need to vigilantly wear face masks and social distancing guidelines.
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