Additionally, random coronavirus mutations cited in the study "might possibly" be in response to crucial mass-scale prohibitive efforts like mask-wearing and social distancing, according to a virologist and senior adviser to Anthony S. Fauci, NIAID director.
Coronavirus mutating to become more contagious
The study — which still awaits peer review — involved more than 5,000 genetic sequences of the coronavirus, which unveiled several continual mutations — one of which has increased the virus' contagiousness, according to the study.
The recent report, however, didn't link the more contagious mutations with a higher probability of death or altered clinical outcomes, reports The Washington Post. All viruses undergo genetic mutations, and most are unremarkable, scientists say.
Coronavirus mutations very active in the US
Notably, coronaviruses like SARS-CoV-2 are relatively stable because they have a proofreading mechanism that remains active during replication. But each mutation is a roll of the dice, and since transmission is so active in the U.S. — at present still seeing tens of thousands additional confirmed infections every day — the coronavirus has had no shortage of opportunities to mutate into configurations of increasing severity for humans, said study author James Musser of Houston Methodist Hospital, The Washington Post reports.
"We have given this virus a lot of chances," said Musser to The Washington Post. "There is a huge population size out there right now."
Scientists at Weill Cornell Medicine, Argonne National Laboratory, the University of Chicago, and the University of Texas at Austin were also involved in the study.
Virus' mutations could affect 'our ability to control it'
The study seems to be the largest single aggregation of the virus' genetic sequences yet completed in the United States. A larger batch of genetic sequences was published earlier in September, and found the mutation driving a change in the structure of the "spike protein" on the virus' surface could be responsible for the disproportionate spread of that specific coronavirus strain.
A virologist at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) named David Morens reviewed the recent study and said the findings suggest a strong likelihood that the virus — as it progressed through the population — has increased its transmission capabilities, which "may have implications for our ability to control it," reports The Washington Post.
Coronavirus possibly adapting to mask-wearing, social distancing
Morens also cautioned jumping to conclusions: "[Y]ou don't want to over-interpret what this means." But the coronavirus, he noted, might possibly be responding via random mutations to mass interventions like mask-wearing and social distancing.
"Wearing masks, washing our hands, all those things are barriers to transmissibility, or contagion, but as the virus becomes more contagious it statistically is better at getting around those barriers," said Morens, who is also senior adviser to Anthony S. Fauci, NIAID director.
As vaccine candidates move closer to public availability — some of which perhaps too close, too fast — it seems the COVID-19 coronavirus also moves closer to us, as it mutates to circumvent common barriers to infection like social distancing, wearing masks, and even washing hands. But vigilance is still key, because even if the virus mutates to get around these precautions, we still eliminate the older types with common sanitary measures.
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