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Scientists Identify New Mutations Of The Coronavirus

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Scientists studying the coronavirus say they have identified a mutation that seems to have helped the virus spread more widely. The study, led by scientists at Los Alamos National Lab in New Mexico, hasn't been peer reviewed, it hasn't been published, but it is getting a lot of attention. And NPR's global health reporter Pien Huang is here to help us make sense of it all.

Hey, Pien.

PIEN HUANG, BYLINE: Hi, Ailsa - great to be here.

CHANG: Great to have you. OK. So this preliminary study - let me see if I understand this. It sounds like they think this virus mutated to spread more widely.

HUANG: Well, that's what they think, but it hasn't actually been proven yet. And it comes with a lot of caveats. So let's take a quick step back and take a look at what's going on. Viruses are always mutating, and the coronavirus is no different. And when a virus infects someone, it gets into their cells and it starts making copies of itself. And when it makes those copies, it sometimes introduces a few changes. And those changes often get passed on to the next person who gets infected. So those are the mutations. And the coronavirus has been changing at a steady, predictable rate from the beginning, which is usually about one or two mutations per month.

CHANG: OK. So a virus changing is nothing weird. These changes are called mutations.

HUANG: Exactly. Yeah. And so scientists at Los Alamos and in many other labs are really interested in these mutations because they are a way to track how the virus is moving through a population. They're kind of like ID cards. So for instance, there is a study looking at mutations on the Arizona State University campus. And it showed that the students that were showing up sick with coronavirus had versions of it from different places. So that means that there probably wasn't an outbreak on campus, they'd just gotten sick on spring break and brought it back.

CHANG: OK. So back to this study from Los Alamos. Scientists there are looking at all of these various mutations. And what did they find?

HUANG: So what they found was a pattern among all these genetic sequences that have been uploaded around the world. It looks like a version of the virus that has a particular mutation has been more prevalent. It started spreading in Europe in early February. And the researchers say that it seems to dominate in the U.S., Australia, countries in Africa, wherever it spreads.

CHANG: So it sounds like the concern here is that this virus is changing to become more contagious. Am I getting that right?

HUANG: So that is what the Los Alamos researchers think it could mean, but other researchers say that it is not proven yet. There's been a lot of pushback today from the scientific community about this idea, that because it's more dominant, it's a strain that's better at infecting people. I spoke with a couple of researchers today who said that it might not be that this mutation is more aggressive. It could also just be that it got started and it spread quickly before Europe could lock down. So the researchers that I spoke with stress that there's no clear evidence that the mutation actually changes the virus's behavior. So they're saying that it's a good theory that this genetic change might make the virus more contagious, but it's not proven by a long shot.

CHANG: So interesting. But what about the development of treatments or the development of a vaccine? How does this research affect any of that?

HUANG: So what the researchers I spoke with today told me is that this particular finding is something they're paying really close attention to, but it doesn't actually threaten any vaccines or medicines that are currently under development. It's a mutation that they've known about since February, first of all. And so the bottom line here with this paper is that it's meant to say, hey, scientists, look here. You know, there's so many mutations that it's often hard to know where to look for researchers. And so the value of a study like this is that it identifies something really interesting and points other scientists towards it so they can take a closer look.

CHANG: So fascinating - that is NPR's global health reporter Pien Huang.

Thank you, Pien.

HUANG: Thank you, Ailsa. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.