The coronavirus is mutating — does it matter?

Compared with HIV, SARS-CoV-2 is changing much more slowly as it spreads. But one mutation stood out to Korber. It was in the gene encoding the spike protein, which helps virus particles to penetrate cells. Korber saw the mutation appearing again and again in samples from people with COVID-19. At the 614th amino-acid position of the spike protein, the amino acid aspartate (D, in biochemical shorthand) was regularly being replaced by glycine (G) because of a copying fault that altered a single nucleotide in the virus’s 29,903-letter RNA code. Virologists were calling it the D614G mutation.

In April, Korber, Montefiori and others warned in a preprint posted to the bioRxiv server that “D614G is increasing in frequency at an alarming rate”1. It had rapidly become the dominant SARS-CoV-2 lineage in Europe and had then taken hold in the United States, Canada and Australia. D614G represented a “more transmissible form of SARS-CoV-2”, the paper declared, one that had emerged as a product of natural selection.

These assertions dismayed many scientists. It wasn’t clear that the D614G viral lineage was more transmissible, or that its rise indicated anything unusual, they said. But alarm spread fast across the media. Although many news stories included researchers’ caveats, some headlines declared that the virus was mutating to become more dangerous. In retrospect, Montefiori says he and his colleagues regret describing the variant’s rise as “alarming”. The word was scrubbed from the peer-reviewed version of the paper, published in Cell in July2.

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