A mutation in the novel coronavirus is appearing in about 95% of all the genomes sequenced by infectious-disease specialists at the Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine in Chicago, Illinois. The idea of a mutating virus isn’t new, in fact, it’s quite common. So, initially scientists didn’t think much of it. However, this mutated version of the virus has quickly become the dominant strain.
There are about 1,300 amino acids that serve as building blocks for a protein on the surface of the virus. In the mutated virus, the genetic instructions for just one of those amino acids, number 614, has changed. The particular amino acid changed from a “D” (shorthand for aspartic acid) to a “G” (short for glycine). The issue is that at this location in the genome sequence it provides the genetic code for the spikes that are on the surface of the virus and give it appearance. These spikes are what allow the virus to enter human cells. The variation seems to make it easier for the virus to do this.
There are approximately 50,000 genomes of the new virus that have been uploaded into a worldwide shared database and around 70% carry the mutation. This has resulted in many scientists trying to figure out why the mutation seem to make the virus more infectious. There is some speculation that those who have the mutated virus actually have more of the virus in their bodies, so it’s easier for them to spread it. The good news is that it doesn’t seem to make the individuals it infects sicker.
While scientists are looking at why COVID-19 has spread so rapidly, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) announced that the number of cases in the United States is more than 10 times higher than what has been reported. This comes after an analysis of numerous surveys to estimate how far the virus has spread. According to Dr. Fiona Havers, who was in charge of the CDC analysis, “This study underscores that there are probably a lot of people infected without knowing it, likely because they have mild or asymptomatic infection. But those people could still spread it to others.” Despite this, experts warn that the majority of people have not yet been infected and should take all possible precautions.
The CDC also issued new information on those who would be most likely to have a severe case of COVID-19. One of the first thing to note is that while older adults, those 65 and older, are at greater risk, younger individuals shouldn’t believe that they’re not at risk for contracting the virus and developing serious complications. Per the latest data, the median age of cases was 48 years old. However, the risk of dying does increase significantly with age.
There are several other factors that can elevate your risk of contracting the virus and having serious problems. The first is being obese (having a body mass index of 30 or more), which 42.5% of American adults are. If you have chronic kidney disease (14% of adults) or type 2 diabetes (12% of adults), you’re also more susceptible. In addition, if you have coronary artery disease, heart failure, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, sickle cell disease, take medications that suppress the immune system, moderate/severe asthma, cerebrovascular disease, cystic fibrosis, high blood pressure, immunocompromised (ex. having a bone marrow transplant or HIV infection), dementia /other neurologic conditions, liver disease, pregnancy, pulmonary fibrosis, smoking, thalassemia (a disorder that reduces the amount of oxygen carried by red blood cells) or type 1 diabetes, you’re risk level is raised. If you have more than one of these underlying conditions, you’re in even more peril.
Despite the volume of cases surging and the CDC stating that the numbers are undercounted, American Airlines released a statement saying that it’ll start booking flights to full capacity as of this Wednesday. This is significant change from the limited bookings that it has been following since April. The company had been only booking up to 85% of a plane’s capacity and leaving about half of the middle seats open. United and Spirit have also adopted similar policies. The airlines argue that stepped-up cleaning procedures and requiring all passengers to wear face coverings gets rid of the need to block some seats. According to United CEO, Scott Kirby, social distancing is impossible on planes anyway because even with empty middle seats, people are less than six feet away from each other.
However, the public doesn’t seem to be ready to embrace this lack of social distancing. Photos and videos of full flights on both American and United have drawn criticism. American did say that it’ll continue to notify customers if their flight is likely to be full and let them change flights at no extra cost. The airline also said it’ll let passengers change seats on the plane if there is room and they stay in the same cabin. However, if you need to travel and want alternatives that promotes social distancing, you should look to JetBlue, Delta and Southwest. JetBlue will keep middle seats empty through the end of July and Delta is not allowing more than 60% capacity through September 30th. Southwest is maxing out capacity at 67% through the end of September as well.