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From Cell Press:  New Insights on the D614G Strain of COVID: Will a New Mutated Strain Delay Vaccine Development?

Reporter: Stephen J. Williams, PhD

Two recent articles in Cell Press, both peer reviewed, discuss the emergence and potential dominance of a new mutated strain of COVID-19, in which the spike protein harbors a D614G mutation.

In the first article “Making Sense of Mutation: What D614G means for the COVID-19 pandemic Remains Unclear”[1] , authors Drs. Nathan Grubaugh, William Hanage, and Angela Rasmussen discuss the recent findings by Korber et al. 2020 [2] which describe the potential increases in infectivity and mortality of this new mutant compared to the parent strain of SARS-CoV2.  For completeness sake I will post this article as to not defer from their interpretations of this important paper by Korber and to offer some counter opinion to some articles which have surfaced this morning in the news.

Making sense of mutation: what D614G means for the COVID-19 pandemic remains unclear

 

Nathan D. Grubaugh1 *, William P. Hanage2 *, Angela L. Rasmussen3 * 1Department of Epidemiology of Microbial Diseases, Yale School of Public Health, New Haven, CT 06510, USA 2Center for Communicable Disease Dynamics, Department of Epidemiology, Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health, Boston, MA 02115, USA 3Center for Infection and Immunity, Columbia Mailman School of Public Health, New York, NY 10032, USA Correspondence: grubaughlab@gmail.com

 

Abstract: Korber et al. (2020) found that a SARS-CoV-2 variant in the spike protein, D614G, rapidly became dominant around the world. While clinical and in vitro data suggest that D614G changes the virus phenotype, the impact of the mutation on transmission, disease, and vaccine and therapeutic development are largely unknown.

Introduction: Following the emergence of SARS-CoV-2 in China in late 2019, and the rapid expansion of the COVID19 pandemic in 2020, questions about viral evolution have come tumbling after. Did SARS-CoV-2 evolve to become better adapted to humans? More infectious or transmissible? More deadly? Virus mutations can rise in frequency due to natural selection, random genetic drift, or features of recent epidemiology. As these forces can work in tandem, it’s often hard to differentiate when a virus mutation becomes common through fitness or by chance. It is even harder to determine if a single mutation will change the outcome of an infection, or a pandemic. The new study by Korber et al. (2020) sits at the heart of this debate. They present compelling data that an amino acid change in the virus’ spike protein, D614G, emerged early during the pandemic, and viruses containing G614 are now dominant in many places around the world. The crucial questions are whether this is the result of natural selection, and what it means for the COVID-19 pandemic. For viruses like SARS-CoV-2 transmission really is everything – if they don’t get into another host their lineage ends. Korber et al. (2020) hypothesized that the rapid spread of G614 was because it is more infectious than D614. In support of their hypothesis, the authors provided evidence that clinical samples from G614 infections have a higher levels of viral RNA, and produced higher titers in pseudoviruses from in vitro experiments; results that now seem to be corroborated by others [e.g. (Hu et al., 2020; Wagner et al., 2020)]. Still, these data do not prove that G614 is more infectious or transmissible than viruses containing D614. And because of that, many questions remain on the potential impacts, if any, that D614G has on the COVID-19 pandemic.

The authors note that this new G614 variant has become the predominant form over the whole world however in China the predominant form is still the D614 form.  As they state

“over the period that G614 became the global majority variant, the number of introductions from China where D614 was still dominant were declining, while those from Europe climbed. This alone might explain the apparent success of G614.”

Grubaugh et al. feel there is not enough evidence that infection with this new variant will lead to higher mortality.  Both Korber et al. and the Seattle study (Wagner et al) did not find that the higher viral load of this variant led to a difference in hospitalizations so apparently each variant might be equally as morbid.

In addition, Grubaugh et al. believe this variant would not have much affect on vaccine development as, even though the mutation lies within the spike protein, D614G is not in the receptor binding domain of the spike protein.  Korber suggest that there may be changes in glycosylation however these experiments will need to be performed.  In addition, antibodies from either D614 or G614 variant infected patients could cross neutralize.

 

Conclusions: While there has already been much breathless commentary on what this mutation means for the COVID19 pandemic, the global expansion of G614 whether through natural selection or chance means that this variant now is the pandemic. As a result its properties matter. It is clear from the in vitro and clinical data that G614 has a distinct phenotype, but whether this is the result of bonafide adaptation to human ACE2, whether it increases transmissibility, or will have a notable effect, is not clear. The work by Korber et al. (2020) provides an early base for more extensive epidemiological, in vivo experimental, and diverse clinical investigations to fill in the many critical gaps in how D614G impacts the pandemic.

The link to the Korber Cell paper is here: https://www.cell.com/cell/fulltext/S0092-8674(20)30820-5

Tracking changes in SARS-CoV-2 Spike: evidence that D614G increases infectivity of the COVID-19 virus

DOI: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cell.2020.06.043

Keypoints

  • The consistent increase of G614 at regional levels may indicate a fitness advantage

 

  • G614 is associated with lower RT PCR Ct’s, suggestive of higher viral loads in patients

 

  • The G614 variant grows to higher titers as pseudotyped virions

Summary

A SARS-CoV-2 variant carrying the Spike protein amino acid change D614G has become the most prevalent form in the global pandemic. Dynamic tracking of variant frequencies revealed a recurrent pattern of G614 increase at multiple geographic levels: national, regional and municipal. The shift occurred even in local epidemics where the original D614 form was well established prior to the introduction of the G614 variant. The consistency of this pattern was highly statistically significant, suggesting that the G614 variant may have a fitness advantage. We found that the G614 variant grows to higher titer as pseudotyped virions. In infected individuals G614 is associated with lower RT-PCR cycle thresholds, suggestive of higher upper respiratory tract viral loads, although not with increased disease severity. These findings illuminate changes important for a mechanistic understanding of the virus, and support continuing surveillance of Spike mutations to aid in the development of immunological interventions.

 

References

  1. Grubaugh, N.D., Hanage, W.P., Rasmussen, A.L., Making sense of mutation: what D614G means for the COVID-19 pandemic remains unclear, Cell (2020), doi: https:// doi.org/10.1016/j.cell.2020.06.040.
  2. Korber, B., Fischer, W.M., Gnanakaran, S., Yoon, H., Theiler, J., Abfalterer, W., Hengartner, N., Giorgi, E.E., Bhattacharya, T., Foley, B., et al. (2020). Tracking changes in SARS-CoV-2 Spike: evidence that D614G increases infectivity of the COVID-19 virus. Cell 182.
  3. Endo, A., Centre for the Mathematical Modelling of Infectious Diseases COVID-19 Working Group, Abbott, S., Kucharski, A.J., and Funk, S. (2020). Estimating the overdispersion in COVID-19 transmission using outbreak sizes outside China. Wellcome Open Res 5, 67.
  4. Hu, J., He, C.-L., Gao, Q.-Z., Zhang, G.-J., Cao, X.-X., Long, Q.-X., Deng, H.-J., Huang, L.-Y., Chen, J., Wang, K., et al. (2020). The D614G mutation of SARS-CoV-2 spike protein enhances viral infectivity and decreases neutralization sensitivity to individual convalescent sera. bioRxiv 2020.06.20.161323.
  5. Wagner, C., Roychoudhury, P., Hadfield, J., Hodcroft, E.B., Lee, J., Moncla, L.H., Müller, N.F., Behrens, C., Huang, M.-L., Mathias, P., et al. (2020). Comparing viral load and clinical outcomes in Washington State across D614G mutation in spike protein of SARS-CoV-2. Https://github.com/blab/ncov-D614G.

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