Top news, reports and insights for today:
- COVID-19 headlines for Tuesday:
- A White House official says the Coronavirus Task Force “will be phased down around Memorial Day” (CNN Politics). WTF?
- 15 Children are hospitalized with mysterious and extremely rare illness linked to COVID-19 in New York, some European countries (New York Times)
- Asia passes 1 quarter-million mark in cases, but has just 7% of the global burden, compared with 40% in Europe and 34% in North America (Reuters)
- First of 4 candidate vaccines from Pfizer begin human testing (Washington Post)
- Alaska received $3.4 million in federal CARES ACT aid per COVID-19 patient, New York got only $24,000 per case (Forbes)
- Is there a more contagious second “strain” of coronavirus? Not necessarily
I feel the strain of all this talk about strains. Let’s call it strain strain (or strain2 for short). You may have heard about a story published in the Los Angeles Times today with the headline “Scientists say a now-dominant strain of the coronavirus appears to be more contagious than the original” (article behind a paywall). Searches for “mutant coronavirus” shot up 5,000% according to Google Trends. This story was followed by fierce outcry among scientists on twitter. It’s based on a report posted on BioRxiv by scientists at Los Alamos National Laboratory. The study has not been peer-reviewed, so let’s approach with caution. Informal review is now happening on twitter. The article is by computational biologists who used over 6,000 genetic sequences of the SARS-CoV-2 virus from around the world, looking at subtle variations in the code. They focus on one mutation called D614G which they say emerged after the virus first broke out in Wuhan and has since become more common in hard-hit places like Italy and New York. They say this is enough evidence to warrant an “early warning” that this constitutes a new “strain” of the virus and one that must be more contagious because it seems to have taken over and spread faster than the original strain. Not so fast, say the experts. After a deep dive into the tweet storm, and communicating with several experts, I am convinced that the LA Times story over-states what’s actually in the Los Alamos report, and rushes to judgement in a number of important ways. I have said before that experts in the field have been careful to point out that mutations occur constantly in a new virus. Whether those mutations change the way the virus works (in terms of its transmissibility or lethality) is a different matter. It’s too soon to tell if this mutation has made the virus more contagious, or whether it just got lucky and happened to spread faster due to what experts call “founder” effects or random genetic drift. Normally, when a mutation is found like this one, using studies of genetic data alone, scientists have to do followup lab studies to confirm that the mutation in question is actually doing something or is just random window dressing. That usually means animal research under careful control to zero in on the mutation’s function. Nothing like that has been done yet. Therefore, it is possible that this, and all other mutations that have occurred, is just luck-of-the draw for the virus and not a signal of a new and worse “strain”. Of course, the possibility of a second more contagious strain also cannot be ruled out. It’s just that we don’t have enough to conclude, as the title would suggest, that “scientists say” there is a second strain. Anyone interested in the details can look at the twitter posts from Dr. Bill Hanage from Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health (@BillHanage).
His bottom line: “…right now there are better ways of fighting the pandemic than worrying about different strains”.