Caixin
Mar 21, 2020 07:21 PM
SOCIETY & CULTURE

Coronavirus Has Potential To Be a Lot More Infectious, New Study Finds

Medical workers prepare nucleic acid tests on Feb. 13 in a laboratory in Wuhan, the epicenter of China’s coronavirus outbreak. Photo: China’s central government
Medical workers prepare nucleic acid tests on Feb. 13 in a laboratory in Wuhan, the epicenter of China’s coronavirus outbreak. Photo: China’s central government

Mutations could make the new coronavirus 100 times more likely to bind with human cells, a new study has found, indicating the virus has the potential to grow more infectious.

The study, published this week, reveals there is a higher risk of more severe infections during a lengthy pandemic unless effective precautions are taken, according to the researchers behind the study, which was jointly conducted by teams at Southern Medical University and Jinan University in China, and George Mason University in the U.S.

For the study, the researchers looked at worldwide mutations of the virus’s receptor-binding domain (RBD). They found that mutations could remarkably enhance the virus’ affinity — or how much a substance tends to bind with another — with the human cell receptor that has been identified as the entry point for the coronavirus’s attack, according to the study, which was posted Tuesday on bioRxiv, a free online distribution platform for research that has not been peer reviewed.

Zhang Gong, one of the authors of the study, told Caixin that a hundredfold increase in the virus’s affinity does not mean a hundredfold increase in how infectiousness it is because that is determined by a host of factors. However, an increased affinity does make it more likely the virus will be more infectious, Zhang said.

The study pointed out that the viruses have been adapting to transmission and replication in humans, and that mutation or recombination events in the RBD may increase the affinity, making human-to-human transmission easier.

Keeping an eye on how the virus mutates is therefore crucial for keeping it under control, according to the researchers. “Combined with the epidemiology data, mutation surveillance is important and it can reveal more exact spreading routes of the epidemics and provide early warning for the possible outbreaks,” the authors wrote, adding that the emergence of RBD mutations in Hong Kong, France and in other places requires close attention.

An earlier study published by scientists in the U.S. found that the new coronavirus appears to be much more infectious than SARS.

Contact reporter Timmy Shen (hongmingshen@caixin.com, Twitter: @timmyhmshen) and editor Michael Bellart (michaelbellart@caixin.com)

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