It’s official, the COVID-19 virus has mutated into two strain that is 1,000 more infectious.
To date, at least 94,000 people have been infected around the world with COVID-19 and almost 3,200 have died, while 50,000 have recovered from the disease. But those numbers could change in the coming weeks. Researchers say there are now two types of the coronavirus infecting people and 70% of those infected have caught the more aggressive form.
Published this week, a study from Nankai University in Tianjin lead by Professor Ruan Jishou, discovered that the new SARS-Cov-2 coronavirus that causes the COVID-19 disease has a mutated gene that is found in the HIV virus. As a result, the study found two distinct versions of the virus which they named L and S.
L Strain – The more aggressive and faster-spreading stain compare to its milder counterpart, S. This strain is responsible for around 70% of infected patients. Due to its aggressive nature, it has become less common as the outbreak has gone on, with it apparently struggling to spread since early January. The L strain surged at the beginning of the outbreak and made people so ill, those who caught it were quickly diagnosed and isolated. This isolation have it less opportunity to spread widely. Experts suggest the ‘human intervention’ and lock down of areas where it was spreading fast is controlling the transmission rate, and hopefully leading to this virus strain to burn itself out.
S Strain – This milder strain, is less severe but people will carry it for longer before ending up in hospital thus causing the more infection. From an evolutionary standpoint, this strain is winning out compared to its more aggressive form.
Jishou states, “This finding suggests that 2019-nCoV coronavirus may be significantly different from the SARS coronavirus in the infection pathway and has the added potency of using the packing mechanisms of other viruses such as HIV.”
How coronavirus infects the human body is it attaches to human cells by deceiving an enzyme which can make it ‘fuse’ to proteins inside the body and cause the infection Typically, a virus uses the outreaching spike protein to hook on to the host cell, but normally this protein is inactive. The findings of the study reveal that the mutation can generate a structure known as a cleavage site (similar to those in HIV and Ebola) in the new coronavirus’ spike protein. The cleavage site structure’s role is to trick the human furin protein, so it will cut and activate the spike protein and cause a “direct fusion” of the viral and cellular membranes.
“The combined findings from the three studies indicate that because of the HIV-like mutations, its ability to bind with human cells could be as much as 1,000 times more potent than the initial SARS virus of 2003.
The findings also indicate that the new SARS-CoV-2 has a ‘dual attack’ approach of binding to human cells.
The first is via the ACE2 receptors found on human cell membranes and it’s a typical mode of most coronaviruses. (The new SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus has a plus 80 percent genomic matching to the previous SARS virus, hence it explains this property that it possesses)
However it must be noted that the ACE2 protein does not occur in large quantities in healthy people, and this partly helped to limit the scale of the SARS outbreak of 2002/2003 which infected close to 8,000 people globally.
As the findings of the new study indicates that the new SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus has a mutated gene similarly found on the HIV virus, it is also able to attack human cells via the target called furin, which is an enzyme that works as a protein activator in the human body. Typically many proteins are inactive or dormant when they are produced and have to be “cut” at specific points to activate their various functions which furin does in the human cellular pathways.
Professor Ruan Jishou and his team at Nankai University in Tianjin discovered this new property of the SARS-CoV-2 when they were doing genome sequencing of the new coronavirus found a section of mutated genes that did not exist in the original SARS virus, but were similar to those found in HIV.
It should be noted that the study that discovered the mutation only used a tiny amount of data – 103 samples – and it has not been peer reviewed so more research is needed.
While it is not uncommon for viruses to mutate and change after they jump from animals to humans, knowing that the virus is mutating, will make it more difficult for health officials to track, treat, and because it is different from the original strain of coronavirius, there is a possibility that those who have recovered from the initial coronavirus outbreak could become reinfected.
Why Do Viruses Mutate?
A pathogen’s job is to evade the immune system, create more copies of itself, and spread to other hosts. Its ability to drift from the original strand makes it difficult for vaccines to work and a body’s natural immunity to keep up and prepare. In the case of the two strains of coronavirus many believe the less aggressive strain may be the mutated form as it is more efficient at hiding the infection.
“Like all living things, influenza makes small errors—mutations—when it copies its genetic code during reproduction. But influenza lacks the ability to repair those errors, because it is an RNA virus; RNA, unlike DNA, lacks a self-correcting mechanism. As a result, influenza is not genetically stable. Source
According to PLOS, a biology journal, “RNA viruses have high mutation rates. In fact, their mutation rates are up to a million times higher than their hosts—and these high rates are correlated with enhanced virulence and evolvability, traits considered beneficial for viruses. Moreover, flu viruses have the capacity to change both slowly, through small genetic changes that are passed down to daughter generations, and quickly, through a process called “reassortment” that mixes larger genetic segments from several viral strains to create a new virus. Both processes are important to influenza’s success as a disease-causing organism during flu seasons and in pandemics. But not all changes are created equal.
As CDC notes:
One way influenza viruses change is called “antigenic drift.” These are small changes (or mutations) in the genes of influenza viruses that can lead to changes in the surface proteins of the virus: HA (hemagglutinin) and NA (neuraminidase). The HA and NA surface proteins of influenza viruses are “antigens,” which means they are recognized by the immune system and are capable of triggering an immune response, including production of antibodies that can block infection. The changes associated with antigenic drift happen continually over time as the virus replicates. Most flu shots are designed to target an influenza virus’ HA surface proteins/antigens. The nasal spray flu vaccine (LAIV) targets both the HA and NA of an influenza virus.
The small changes that occur from antigenic drift usually produce viruses that are closely related to one another, which can be illustrated by their location close together on a phylogenetic tree. Influenza viruses that are closely related to each other usually have similar antigenic properties. This means that antibodies your immune system creates against one influenza virus will likely recognize and respond to antigenically similar influenza viruses (this is called “cross-protection”).
However, the small changes associated with antigenic drift can accumulate over time and result in viruses that are antigenically different (further away on the phylogenetic tree). It is also possible for a single (or small) change in a particularly important location on the HA to result in antigenic drift. When antigenic drift occurs, the body’s immune system may not recognize and prevent sickness caused by the newer influenza viruses. As a result, a person becomes susceptible to flu infection again, as antigenic drift has changed the virus enough that a person’s existing antibodies won’t recognize and neutralize the newer influenza viruses.
Antigenic drift is the main reason why people can get the flu more than one time, and it’s also a primary reason why the flu vaccine composition must be reviewed and updated each year (as needed) to keep up with evolving influenza viruses.
The other type of change is called “antigenic shift.” Antigenic shift is an abrupt, major change in an influenza A virus, resulting in new HA and/or new HA and NA proteins in influenza viruses that infect humans. Shift can result in a new influenza A subtype in humans. One way shift can happen is when an influenza virus from an animal population gains the ability to infect humans. Such animal-origin viruses can contain an HA or HA/NA combination that is so different from the same subtype in humans that most people do not have immunity to the new (e.g., novel) virus. Such a “shift” occurred in the spring of 2009, when an H1N1 virus with genes from North American Swine, Eurasian Swine, humans and birds emerged to infect people and quickly spread, causing a pandemic. When shift happens, most people have little or no immunity against the new virus.
While influenza viruses change all the time due to antigenic drift, antigenic shift happens less frequently. Influenza pandemics occur very rarely; there have been four pandemics in the past 100 years. For more information, see pandemic flu. Type A viruses undergo both antigenic drift and shift and are the only influenza viruses known to cause pandemics, while influenza type B viruses change only by the more gradual process of antigenic drift.
What Can We Do?
Everything we are seeing now should be a blaring sign to get ready. With the potential for a large-scale emergency like a widespread pandemic and with so many factors at play, it is difficult to determine whether this will be short-lived and last until the weather warms, or if it will become a normal concern during flu season. Only time will tell, but to be on the safe side, it’s time to prepare for the long-haul. We can’t control if or when governments decide to prepare, but we can control when and what we, as individuals need to protect our families
- Store a one month supply of water and food. During a pandemic, if you cannot get to a store, or if stores are out of supplies, it will be important for you to have extra supplies on hand.
- Take precautions and stock up on hand sanitizer, antibacterial soap, personal protective equipment (PPE) to wear in public, around those who may be ill or exposed to the illness. PPE includes: face masks, non-sterile gloves, eye protection. Further, consider adding the following items to your pandemic supplies.
- Periodically check your regular prescription drugs to ensure a continuous supply in your home.
Have any nonprescription drugs and other health supplies on hand, including pain relievers, stomach remedies, cough and cold medicines, fluids with electrolytes, and vitamins.
- Talk with family members and loved ones about how they would be cared for if they got sick, or what will be needed to care for them in your home.
- Prepare a sick room for the home to limit family member’s exposure to the virus.
- Prepare to go on lock down and self-quarantine if the outbreak gets too close to home.
- Pray. Let’s face the facts, with what we are possibly facing, we need all the help we can get!
To decrease the chances of the virus spreading and infecting other household members as well as members of your community, it is important that every effort be made to limit exposure to the illness. Some considerations on how to prevent exposure to a pandemic outbreak are:
- Avoid close contact with those who are ill.
- Stay inside and avoid contact with others.
- Avoid touching your mouth, nose and eyes during any pandemic.
- Cover your mouth and nose with a tissue when coughing or sneezing. It may prevent those around you from getting sick.
- Keep your hands clean. Washing your hands often will help protect you from germs. Above all, avoid touching your eyes, nose or mouth. Use a surgical mask to train yourself not to touch your face.
- If you are ill, stay indoors, alert authorities and keep your distance from others and animals.
- Keeping your immune systems up by getting lots of sleep, having a good diet and taking antioxidants in protecting your health.
If you are exhibiting any of these symptoms of COVID-19, wear a face mask, put on gloves and contact a health care provider for further instructions.
Symptoms may appear 2-14 days after exposure*:
- Pneumonia like symptoms
- Shortness of breath
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