Yesterday my daughter told me how there was a “new and more deadly strain of COVID-19 out there.” I also had a potential business colleague ask me if the “new strain of COVID would be detected by current antibody assays?” While random genetic (nucleotide base) changes have been used to follow the COVID geographic migration, I was unaware of any genetic change in COVID that would justify calling something a “new strain.” A new strain usually means the virus has new activity or has escaped immunity. I decided to investigate the basis of this “new strain.”
It turns out this claim was based on a paper posted on the bioRxiv site run by Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory. This paper was posted on April 30th but has not been peer reviewed and its methods have not been tested by any other group. In summary, it has 8,600 likes but no validation.
The paper’s authors used computer analysis for “real-time mutation tracking in SARS-CoV-2.” They focus on the Spike protein because it mediates binding to human cells and is a target of vaccine strategies and antibody-based therapeutics. They call these changes “mutations” but have no evidence they “mutate” (change) the protein function.
The investigators have identified fourteen genetic changes in the Spike protein gene. They investigated these changes only through structural modeling. They did no experiments to show that any mutation actually changes the function or infectivity of the virus. They did not check to see if antibodies to other coronaviruses would bind to the virus with this change. Therefore, there were NO ACTUAL EXPERIMENTS supporting their work, just computer simulations.
Despite this, the investigators claimed that a Spike protein substitution (glutamic acid for glycine at position 614; D614G) was of “urgent concern,” because “this mutation began spreading in Europe in early February, and when introduced to new regions it rapidly became the dominant form.” They also claimed their findings have “important implications for SARS-CoV-2 transmission, pathogenesis and immune interventions.”
Scary stuff if it is true–a more dangerous COVID-19 virus that would escape preexisting immunity! However, the investigators’ own paper showed there was no significant correlation found between D614G and hospitalization status or death. The only correlation was a slight enrichment of D614G among the ICU subjects, and this was not “statistically significant.”
On May 5th, however, the Los Angeles Times wrote about it, claiming that “a now-dominant strain of the coronavirus could be more contagious than [the] original.” After that, the claim was repeated on every national news outlet without any further analysis. The concept of a “deadly, new strain of COVID-19” seemed to permeate the country’s psyche, including my daughter’s and business associate’s.
Finally, in a great piece in the Atlantic by Ed Yong, the credibility of these claims was challenged. Ed talked with several different virologists, and (in contrast to the news reports) all felt there was only one strain of COVID.
Most succinct were the comments of Dr. Lisa Gralinski of the University of North Carolina, who specializes in coronaviruses. She states flatly, “the conclusions are overblown.” “To say that you’ve revealed the emergence of a more transmissible form of SARS-CoV-2 without ever actually testing it isn’t the type of thing that makes me feel comfortable as a scientist.”
It would again appear that the news media are out to scare people without any legitimate reason. They are really good at it!