FIT-WebQoof: Is Coronavirus Strain Found in Malaysia Really New?

Will the coronavirus strain D614G impact vaccine development?

3 min read
A social media post by Malaysia's Director General of Health claims the strain found in the country is more infectious.

Malaysia's Director General of Health has claimed that a coronavirus strain D614G found in the country is 10 times more infectious and will impact ongoing vaccine development. The claim was made by Noor Hisham in a Facebook post.

News agency Bloomberg reported the story with a headline that said, "Just in, Malaysia detects a new coronavirus strain that's 10 times more infectious." They subsequently changed the headline to say, "Southeast Asia Detects Mutated Virus Strain Sweeping the World." But the tweet remains the same.

But is the strain new? And is it more infectious? And will it impact vaccines that are under development? We examine the claims made by the agency and by the director general.

What is D614G?

D614G is a mutation of the Sars-CoV-2 virus. Mutation indicates a change in the generic material of the virus. D614G points to mutation in the spike of the virus, that the virus uses to invade human cells.

Is this Strain New? Is it the first time D614G has been found in Malaysia?

The D614G variant was found in a cluster of 45 cases in Malaysia. The government traced the origin of the virus to a restaurant owner who had returned from India. The man was found guilty of violating home quarantine and has been jailed for 5 months.

While it may well have been noticed for the first time in Malaysia, the variant has been seen across the world and is not new. China, US, Europe and Philipines have all reported finding this variant in the samples of COVID-19.

Virologist Dr Shahid Jameel says the same variant has been found in India as well.

“This variant was first spotted in February. Since then, it has become the dominant variant in the world. Over 80,000 genome sequences have been made of the virus, and of them 2/3rds are of this variant. It has been found circulating in India for a while and is the dominant variant here as well.”
Dr Shahid Jameel, Director, Trivedi School of Biosciences, Ashoka University

Is D614G more infectious?

In his Facebook post, Noor Hisham calls the variant 10 times more infectious. But is this claim based on a study? That's not mentioned in the post. He says, "It's found 10 times easier to infect other individuals and spread easily if spread by the individual 'super spreader."

Dr Jameel says being more infectious doesn't make the mutation in itself is more dangerous.

“There is no scientific report that suggests this variant of the virus causes more sickness. People are getting confused between disease and transmission. If a virus spreads faster, it doesn't mean it is more dangerous. Take the example of flu that spreads more easily, but the disease itself is mild. This variant does spread more easily, but there is no proof that it is more dangerous."
Dr Shahid Jameel, Director, Trivedi School of Biosciences, Ashoka University

Will it Impact Vaccine Development?

In his Facebook post, the Director General says, "This D614G mutation was found by scientists in July 2020 and will probably lead to an existing vaccine study not to include or not effective in this mutation."

Dr Jameel explains that in this variant, a change has been detected in the spike protein's 614 position. But this mutation will not impact the vaccine development, because the part of the virus essential for vaccines has seen no change.

“Spike protein has different regions. One of the regions is called receptor-binding domain. If the antibody is made against that region, then it provides protection. So far, it's been seen that antibodies made in other regions don't provide protection. This mutation is outside the receptor-binding domain and will not impact vaccines in development.”
Dr Shahid Jameel, Director, Trivedi School of Biosciences, Ashoka University

According to an article published in the well-known journal Cell in June, the ability of the mutation to impact vaccines is almost nil.

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