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Many coronavirus mutations are circling the globe, but we don’t know if any are more dangerous

The coronavirus is mutating as it spreads across the planet, with a strain that may first have appeared in Europe becoming dominant in many areas even as new ones appear. The still unanswered question is how the strains differ and whether they cause additional, and more severe, illnesses.

Several recent studies have identified mutations of the original SARS-CoV-2 virus that emerged in China and causes COVID-19. The strains are very similar but represent slight changes in the virus’ makeup.

“That could explain why we’re seeing such different outcomes between San Francisco and New York City,” said Alan Wu, a professor of laboratory medicine at the University of California, San Francisco’s School of Medicine and chief of the clinical chemistry laboratory at Zuckerberg San Francisco General Hospital. “Everybody talks about the SARS-CoV-2 virus as if it’s one thing. It may be more of a problem,” said Dr. Greg Poland, director of the Mayo Clinic’s Vaccine Research Group.

All viruses mutate, especially RNA viruses such as SARS-CoV-2, said Poland. What’s important is whether there’s going to be a clinical significance, he said.

One potentially alarming study posted April 30 from Los Alamos National Laboratory found 14 mutations of virus circulating and warned that several had characteristics that could make them more infective. Another paper found several mutations of the virus.
Wu cautioned that it’s too early to draw hard and fast conclusions before there’s enough data to base them on.

“It’s a lot more complicated than either of these two papers suggests,” he said. “Lots of labs are doing the research but they haven’t yet published their findings.”

Initial results of an in-depth COVID-19 testing program in a small neighborhood in San Francisco published Monday found 2.1% were positive for coronavirus and more than half had no symptoms. So far Wu’s hospital, which sees a high percentage of poor and underserved patients, has had only two deaths and about 100 people put on artificial breathing machines due to COVID-19. New York City has seen more than 19,000 deaths according to the city’s health department.

Though New York’s overall population is much larger – 8 million versus 880,000 – the difference is striking.