Study claims European strain of coronavirus is more infectious than the original (but is it?)

Viruses mutate as they get passed around. The original strain of the coronavirus existed in a bat and probably made its way into another animal host where it picked up new features that allowed it to become highly infectious to humans. Now a new study which was pre-published last week, meaning it hasn’t been peer-reviewed yet, claims the virus has mutated, making it even more infectious to humans than the original strain.

The new strain appeared in February in Europe, migrated quickly to the East Coast of the United States and has been the dominant strain across the world since mid-March, the scientists wrote…

The mutation identified in the new report affects the now infamous spikes on the exterior of the coronavirus, which allow it to enter human respiratory cells. The report’s authors said they felt an “urgent need for an early warning” so that vaccines and drugs under development around the world will be effective against the mutated strain.

Wherever the new strain appeared, it quickly infected far more people than the earlier strains that came out of Wuhan, China, and within weeks it was the only strain that was prevalent in some nations, according to the report. The new strain’s dominance over its predecessors demonstrates that it is more infectious, according to the report, though exactly why is not yet known.

If confirmed, this might help explain a number of things we’ve all witnesses. For instance, the northeastern United States has been much harder hit than the west coast even though the west coast had some of the first hot spots. That could be because the west coast was initially dealing with the Wuhan strain while the east coast was hit with the more infectious European strain.

These results could also help explain some of the international differences we’ve seen. For instance, China was able to stop the first wave of the virus in Wuhan while places like Spain and Italy, who were dealing with the new strain, struggled to achieve the same results. Maybe the difference in partly based on China dealing with a less infectious strain of the virus.

Or maybe not.

An associate professor from Harvard’s school of public health published a thread about this study last Friday suggesting that the opposite could be the case: Maybe it only appears the European strain is more infectious because it spread more successfully in a place where mitigation efforts were insufficient.

So maybe what looks like a more infectious strain to us is really just a reflection of less intensive mitigation efforts in nations, like Italy, where this particular variation spread. That answer isn’t as satisfying in some ways but it could be true. The fact that this research hasn’t been peer-reviewed and could be explained in other ways just means we should probably take it with a grain of salt for now.

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