Florida Researchers Say Coronavirus Becoming More Infectious in Mutant Form

Scientists at a research institute in Florida said studies they have conducted into the novel coronavirus reveal a mutated strain of the virus is more infectious than the version that first began spreading across the globe in late 2019.

The Scripps Research Institute team's findings were published online earlier this month as the paper detailing their studies was going through a standard peer-review process.

"Our study shows that the mutant virus infects cells much more efficiently in a cell-culture system, because the mutation stabilizes the spike protein and increases the number of spike proteins on the virus," Hyeryun Choe, the paper's senior author, told Newsweek. "Because the spike protein is essential to attach to the target cells, higher numbers of more stable spike protein naturally enable the mutant virus to attach and infect the target cells more easily."

Choe and another of the paper's co-authors, Michael Farzan, have been studying coronaviruses for about two decades, according to a news release published earlier this month.

Miami Beach
People gather on the beach in Miami Beach, Florida on June 16, 2020. New research suggests a mutated form of the new coronavirus is contributing to recent spikes in infections in Florida and in other states across the U.S. EVA MARIE UZCATEGUI/AFP via Getty Images

When COVID-19 sprung onto the scene, Choe and Farzan began looking closely at the structure of the virus, searching for potential weak spots as scientists around the world raced to develop a vaccine. Instead of a genetic weakness, Choe said her team found the virus was actually getting stronger over time as its mutated form began popping up in increasing numbers. The mutation was present in 70 percent of virus sequences reported to GenBank, an international genetic sequencing database, by May. Three months earlier, no evidence of the mutation was being reported to the database, the Scripps Research team said in its release.

"Over time, it has figured out how to hold on better and not fall apart until it needs to," Farzan said in the release. "The virus has, under selection pressure, made itself more stable."

That stability enables the virus to transmit more easily from one human host to another, the scientists said.

Earlier this week, Choe told the Miami-based television station WSVN the virus mutation likely had a significant presence in Florida, where cases have been skyrocketing over the last few weeks. By Wednesday morning, the Florida Department of Health said 109,014 cases had been reported throughout the state and 3,281 residents have died after contracting the virus.

"Probably by now a majority, a big majority of the virus in Florida is the mutated form," she told the station.

Choe told Newsweek the mutated virus sequence already has a significant presence in the U.S. Its widespread existence coupled with efforts by government leaders throughout the country to ease restrictions initially put in place to stem the pandemic's spread made it likely more states would soon see new spikes in infection rates, she said.

"The mutant virus has already dominated a large part of the country," Choe said. "People got tired and started to relax on protecting themselves, and this would contribute more to the new surge of infection."