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DURHAM, N.C. (WTVD) — Duke University School of Medicine researchers have helped discover a new coronavirus gene mutation that helps the virus spread faster.

Dr. David Montefiori is a professor of surgery who also serves as Director of the Laboratory for AIDS Vaccine Research and Development. He explained that the gene mutation causes a new strain of coronavirus.

“We’re looking at the genetic sequence of the virus. And in particular, we’re looking at the sequence of the spike protein. This is a protein that’s on the surface of a virus, that the virus uses to attach to a cell and to get into a cell,” Dr. Montefiori said.

Scientists around the world study sequences taken from people infected with viruses. They then deposit the sequences into a central database originally designed to help researchers study the flu.

“Once those sequences are deposited into the database, scientists have access to those sequences to analyze them. And my colleague at Los Alamos National Laboratory Dr. Bette Korber, who is an expert at analyzing sequences, and we have been collaborating together for many years on HIV, she immediately started analyzing the spike sequences in that database that were coming in from around the world,” Dr. Montefiori said. “And we were both interested in whether or not mutations might arise that showed evidence of spreading in the human population – that many people would show evidence of being infected with a virus that carries a mutation in it.”

He explained how the mutation spread quickly.

“(Dr. Korber) noticed this mutation that we call D614G in the spike protein that was found in about six people in very early March. So it became a mutation of interest because of showing some evidence of spreading, suggesting that it might have a fitness advantage. And within weeks, it was found in more and more people,” Dr. Montefiori said. “As more and more sequences came into the database, more and more of those sequences had this mutation. And it just kept spreading. By the end of April, it was now the dominant strain of the virus globally.”

Researchers don’t believe the strain is more deadly than the original coronavirus strain, they are still concerned.

“It appears to spread faster. And that’s probably why the virus liked the mutation, and why it’s so dominant because it provided an advantage to the virus to spread easier. And that’s what a virus wants to do to survive. It wants to be able to transmit,” Dr. Montefiori said.

Dr. Montefiori did not believe this mutation is the cause for the US having so many more cases, hospitalizations and deaths than any other country.