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Experts Cast Doubt on Notion That New Strain of Coronavirus Is More Infectious

THURSDAY, May 7, 2020 (HealthDay News) — A new study suggesting that the new coronavirus has mutated to become even more infectious should be viewed with skepticism, multiple experts said Wednesday.

Earlier this week, researchers at Los Alamos National Laboratory concluded that the new strain of the coronavirus started spreading in Europe in early February and then expanded to other parts of the world, becoming the dominant strain of the virus in the United States and Canada by the end of March, CNBC reported.

The team also concluded that the strain was more easily transmitted between people.

The study was posted Thursday on the website BioRxiv, and has not been peer-reviewed.

The research “doesn’t prove that this new strain is in fact more infectious,” Gottlieb said Wednesday on CNBC’s “Squawk Box.”

“The analysis could be confounded by the fact that this just became the dominant strain in Europe because it got into Europe early and then got into the United States from Europe,” former U.S. Food and Drug Administration head Dr. Scott Gottlieb explained. “It really doesn’t prove anything.”

He also noted that the study is only based on computational analysis and more research is required, CNN reported. “We don’t have any other data to support it, including cell culture data,” he noted.

“We saw a change like this with Ebola and we initially thought that it also made Ebola more contagious, and we actually had cell culture data to support it at that time,” Gottlieb said.

“We found that when we put it into animal studies, in fact the change in the [Ebola] virus didn’t change its contours at all, didn’t make it more infectious,” he explained.

Speaking to The New York Times, evolutionary biologist Sergei Pond, of Temple University, agreed.

“I don’t think they provide evidence to claim transmissibility enhancement,”he said.

“In order to establish this, you’d need direct competition between strains in the same geographic area,” and that hasn’t been shown, Pond explained.

There are different strains of the new coronavirus circulating, but mutation alone doesn’t mean it’s more contagious, Gottlieb said.

“Just because it mutates doesn’t mean it’s changing in ways that’s going to make it more virulent or more infectious,” he said. “It is going to drift over time. Generally the drift should be in the direction of making it less virulent, less dangerous, not more, if it’s selected for, because it wants to keep its host [people] alive.”

“I think those [Los Alamos] claims are suspect, to say the least,” Bill Hanage, an epidemiologist at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, added on Twitter, the Times reported.

— Robert Preidt

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SOURCE: CNBC; CNN, The New York Times

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