A new, mutated strain of the coronavirus that causes COVID-19 has become dominant and appears to be more contagious than the strain that spread during the early stages of the pandemic, scientists report.
They said the new strain appeared in February in Europe, spread to the East Coast of the United States and has been the dominant strain worldwide since mid-March, the Los Angeles Times reported.
The new strain spreads faster and may make people susceptible to a second COVID-19 infection, but it does not appear to be more deadly, according to the genetic study posted Thursday on BioRxiv, a website used by researchers use to share their work before it’s reviewed by peers.
The scientists said there was an “urgent need for an early warning” so that vaccines and drugs under development to fight the new coronavirus will be effective against the mutated strain, the Times reported.
For their study, the researchers conducted a computational analysis of more than 6,000 coronavirus genetic sequences from around the world. It’s not known why the new strain is more infectious than prior strains.
“The story is worrying, as we see a mutated form of the virus very rapidly emerging, and over the month of March becoming the dominant pandemic form,” study leader Bette Korber, a computational biologist at Los Alamos National Laboratory, wrote on her Facebook page, the Times reported.
“When viruses with this mutation enter a population, they rapidly begin to take over the local epidemic, thus they are more transmissible,” Korber explained.
In recent weeks, health experts have wondered if there were at least two strains of the coronavirus in the United States, with one more common on the East Coast and another more common on the West Coast, Alan Wu told the Times. He leads the clinical chemistry and toxicology laboratories at San Francisco General Hospital,
“We are looking to identify the mutation,” he said, pointing out that his hospital has had only a few deaths out of the hundreds of cases it has treated, which is “quite a different story than we are hearing from New York.”
Visit the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for more on coronavirus.