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LANL team studies new virus strain

Theoretical biologist Bette Korber, photographed in her office last year, is part of a team at Los Alamos National Laboratory researching the coronavirus. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal

SANTA FE – Scientists at Los Alamos National Laboratory say a potentially more contagious strain of the coronavirus appears to be emerging as the dominant version – a finding that could influence work toward a vaccine.

A research team at the laboratory has been working with scientists at other institutions to examine mutations in the coronavirus, and the group published its preliminary work last week.

The scientists say a new strain of the coronavirus is rapidly replacing the Wuhan version and spreading across the globe.

This version of the virus may be more contagious and present new challenges for vaccine development, according to a recent paper by the researchers. The team also raises the possibility that the new version will make people more susceptible to reinfection, even after they were already sick once, though that’s still an unknown.

The work hasn’t been peer reviewed. Instead, the scientists shared the work quickly to aid in research happening elsewhere.

Bette Korber, a scientist in theoretical biology and biophysics at LANL, said research into the new strain is important work that’s possible only because of incredible cooperation among experts around the globe.

“This is hard news, but please don’t only be disheartened by it,” she said in a post on her Facebook page.

The more scientists learn about the coronavirus, she said, the more quickly they can develop treatments and vaccines.

“Because we know how the virus is evolving, we can respond to it, and fold this knowledge into our collective vaccine efforts,” Korber said. “We cannot afford to be blindsided as we move vaccines and antibodies into clinical testing.”

The mutation research is just part of the work at Los Alamos to respond to the pandemic. A data team at the laboratory also developed a statistical model to forecast the growth in disease cases – work that’s been highlighted by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The Los Alamos model offers state-by-state forecasts and is part of the statistical analysis employed by New Mexico health officials coordinating the local response to the virus.

As for the mutations, the LANL researchers said tracking the evolution of the virus is an important step to ensure a new vaccine is effective. They said more than 60 vaccine approaches are being explored.

The Los Alamos team is examining mutations in the “spikes” of the coronavirus, a trait that helps the virus spread within cells in the body.

They identified a particular mutation spike as an “urgent concern; it began spreading in Europe in early February, and when introduced to new regions it rapidly becomes the dominant form,” the research paper says.

It’s common for viruses to mutate. Different strains of the flu, for example, are usually present each season.

The LANL paper noted that the coronavirus surfaced just six months ago in China but “rapidly spread globally to become a pandemic of devastating impact, unparalleled in our lifetimes.”

Korber said her team alerted other scientists as soon as they discovered the potentially more transmissible form of the coronavirus.

“If the mutation is not an issue for current vaccine designs, Wonderful!” she wrote on Facebook. “But if so, we need to know ASAP, and our colleagues need to get the experiments going to resolve how to best handle it.”

The research team includes representatives of LANL, Duke University and Sheffield Teaching Hospitals in England.

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