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The origin of the UK coronavirus mutation might have been revealed

Published Dec 29th, 2020 11:04AM EST
UK Coronavirus Mutation
Image: Luca Lorenzelli/Adobe

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  • New research shows that the new coronavirus mutation spreading rapidly in England may have actually originated in Italy.
  • An immunocompromised patient developed an asymptomatic case of COVID-19, testing positive from April through November.
  • After sequencing the virus, researchers found various similarities to the UK and South African mutations that were discovered recently. Some of them speculate that the Brescia mutation might have been a precursor to the B.1.1.7 mutation in the UK.

The novel coronavirus outbreak in the UK is surging again, and officials believe the B.1.1.7 mutation that was discovered recently is responsible. In the past few weeks, British government officials said that the mutation might be 70% more infectious than other strains. A first study found that percentage to be a bit lower at 56%, although more research is needed. The study said that the new strain doesn’t cause more severe COVID-19, echoing statements from officials. What’s clear is that the UK is experiencing an unexpected surge in new cases, which are now hitting new record highs. Just a few weeks ago, the curve was flattening ahead of Christmas, indicating that the local restrictions were working.

The new strain was first found in September, but it has been spotted in several other countries since then, reaching parts of Europe, the Middle East, Asia, Africa, Australia, and Canada. Now, it turns out that the mutation might not have originated in the UK at all — and the scientists entertaining this hypothesis also have an explanation for the new strain’s origin.

When B.1.1.7 was detailed a few days ago, we learned that some scientists were surprised to find some 17 distinct genetic changes, which seemed unusual based on past SARS-CoV-2 mutations. They also identified plenty of changes occurring at the spike protein level, the viral component that is targeted by coronavirus vaccines. BioNTech and Moderna both said their drugs should work against the new strain, but that more research will be needed before we know for certain.

UK researchers speculated that the mutation might have developed inside an infected patient over a startlingly long period of time. Such cases are very rare, but they happen. It’s usually immunocompromised patients who can continue to test positive for weeks and even months. That might be exactly what happened in Italy, where an asymptomatic patient tested positive for COVID-19 from April to November.

Patient MB61 from Brescia, Italy, was immunocompromised because of an unspecified preexisting illness, which seemed to be a major risk for COVID-19. But the person never developed any COVID-19 symptoms. Italian newspaper La Republica reports that Arnaldo Caruso, the president of the Italian Society of Virology and a professor at Brescia University, decided to sequence the virus’s genome. The procedure isn’t as frequent in Italy as in the UK, where 10% of cases are sequenced.

Once the virus’s genetic signature was obtained, researchers were surprised to find mutations in common with the B.1.1.7 strain. Massimo Ciccozzi told the paper that he thinks the Brescia mutation might precede the UK strain, but the researchers aren’t certain. Ciccozzi is the chief of the medical statistics and molecular epidemiology unit of the Campus Biomedico in Rome. That’s where the Brescia mutation was studied.

The mutation features a change in the spike protein that the experts call 501. The genetic change would not cause a problem for vaccines, but it could make the virus more infectious. The same mutation is found in the South African mutation that was detailed a few days ago, and it is reportedly present in 80% to 90% of infections in the African nation.

The Brescia strain had 9 mutations in August in addition to the 501 mutation. The number grew to 13 by November. La Republica notes the UK strain has 23 mutations, a few more than the previously reported 17 changes. Ciccozzi said the mutation numbers seem high, but it’s not true that the virus mutates rarely or slowly. He added that a few more weeks are needed to determine the effect of the 501 mutation on cells.

Before the UK mutation, the best-known strain of the virus was D614G, which is believed to have allowed the virus to become a pandemic. That strain has been in circulation since March, and it is believed to have originated in China. It then traveled to Europe and the US, quickly becoming the most dominant strain of the SARS -CoV-2 virus that causes COVID-19.

Chris Smith Senior Writer

Chris Smith has been covering consumer electronics ever since the iPhone revolutionized the industry in 2008. When he’s not writing about the most recent tech news for BGR, he brings his entertainment expertise to Marvel’s Cinematic Universe and other blockbuster franchises.

Outside of work, you’ll catch him streaming almost every new movie and TV show release as soon as it's available.

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