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Alarming study indicates coronavirus has mutated into an even more contagious version

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A new study from scientists at the Los Alamos National Laboratory says that the novel coronavirus SARS-CoV-2 has mutated into another strain that is more contagious than the original, reported the Los Angeles Times.

“The new strain appeared in February in Europe, migrated quickly to the East Coast of the United States and has been the dominant strain across the world since mid-March, the scientists wrote,” the Times said.

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The study also said that the new strain could make people more vulnerable after a second infection.

The study hasn’t been peer-reviewed, but the scientists posted it online at BioRxiv “to speed up collaborations with scientists working on COVID-19 vaccines or treatments.” The research has focused largely on sequencing the genes of earlier strains of the virus. The team worked with scientists at Duke University and the University of Sheffield in England to identify 14 mutations of the coronavirus. They’re focusing on a mutation called D614G, which the Times pointed to as “being responsible for the change in the virus’ spikes.”

“The story is worrying, as we see a mutated form of the virus very rapidly emerging, and over the month of March becoming the dominant pandemic form,” said study leader Bette Korber, who serves as a computational biologist at Los Alamos. “When viruses with this mutation enter a population, they rapidly begin to take over the local epidemic, thus they are more transmissible.”

But some scientists are disputing the findings.

“I think those claims are suspect, to say the least,” tweeted Harvard Associate Professor Bill Hanage, who works in the School of Public Health. “Major observation: a specific mutation in the spike protein of the virus has been in a higher fraction of cases as the pandemic has worn on in multiple places. Given the role of the spike protein in [the] entry of the virus to cells this might be reasonable.”

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“Now for the cold water,” Hanage continued. “We need to distinguish between selection, in which a variant becomes more common because it leaves more descendants, and founder effects in which a variant becomes more common because it was fortunate rolling the dice by that, I mean this variant might have been lucky and got introduced to places outside Wuhan and different approaches to social distancing early on.”

He explained that it isn’t about the virus, as much as it is about the environment in which the virus can be transmitted.

“The paper distinguishes between orange and blue variants (you don’t need to be tracking the exact mutation or character state for you wonderful nerds following) the orange is the old one, the blue is the more recent one,” he explained.

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But the blue mutation is already in all (or close to all) of the cases of the early outbreak in Northern Italy.

“This might be selection,” he continued. “It might well also be chance, the lucky strain that got out of China. Most outbreaks around the world descend from Europe now. Meanwhile, China’s extreme interventions appear to have squashed what remained in China and stemmed the dissemination of the other parts of the early viral diversity ([with] strong caveat that there are far fewer genomes from regions that are not Europe or the US).”

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He also noted that there are a lack of genomes from the later stages of the pandemic from China and Asia, making it hard to analyze. He explained that more samples from Iran could be helpful, because the genome there appears to be very close to the original strain.

“Essentially the virus has been mutating, as Xueting Qiu and I said it would in February,” he went on. It doesn’t exactly mean much, however, because mutations happen when genomes replicate. “The increase in the ‘blue’ variant may well reflect a population bottleneck, in which it happens to be the one that gets into the (relatively inattentive) European population and then spreads like wildfire. That’s what I *think* happened.”

Read the full report from the Los Angeles Times and the dispute from Assoc. Prof. Hanange.

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2020 Election

Trump-loving media’s attacks on Joe Biden have all been epic flops so far: data

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Pro-Trump media websites have been trying to pull the same trick on Joe Biden that they pulled on Hillary Clinton in 2016 -- but so far, none of their attacks on the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee have gained traction.

Axios reports that data from right-wing news websites shows that reader engagement on three key anti-Biden stories -- his alleged mental decline, his son Hunter Biden's former job with Ukrainian energy company Burisma, and sexual assault allegations by Tara Reade -- have all fizzled.

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2020 Election

Trump aides frustrated by his ‘nonsensical’ Biden attacks in Ohio: AP reporter

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During a segment on MSNBC's "Morning Joe," Associated Press White House correspondent Jonathan Lemire stated that aides close to President Donald Trump thought the president made some good points about the U.S. economy on Thursday -- only to have his message overlooked when he attacked former Vice President Joe Biden.

Speaking with co-host Willie Geist, Lemire said there were other problems with the Ohio visit -- including Republican Gov. Mike DeWine being unable to attend because he tested positive for COVID-19 -- but Trump stating Biden "hurts God" made the economic points the president made secondary in a state where he needs votes.

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2020 Election

Expert: Trump playing ‘whack-a-mole’ in attempt to salvage states he should be winning

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A top political analyst says President Donald Trump seems to be flying blind as he heads toward an electoral loss.

Dave Wasserman, the U.S. House editor for the Cook Report, told MSNBC's "Morning Joe" that demographic changes had turned formerly reliable red states into competitive congressional races, and that same dynamic had made Trump's re-election campaign even more challenging.

"Pennsylvania, Florida and North Carolina, if you talk to the Trump data people they'll hang their hat on the gap getting narrower in those states," Wasserman said. "What's happening is that a lot of the older voters who, for lack of a better term, are exiting the electorate. They are disproportionally registered Democrats who are conservative and voted for Trump in 2016. Yes, the registration gap is narrowing, fewer voters are registering to vote this year than did in 2016 because we're in a pandemic. That doesn't mean the states are getting more favorable to Trump."

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