Virus mutation spreads as crowds flocked to NC parks and beaches over the holiday weekend.
After hitting a record increase in COVID-19 infections on Friday, the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services reported a sharp decline Saturday.
But just as crowds of North Carolinians flocked to state parks and beaches over the holiday weekend, researchers at the Duke University School of Medicine announced the discovery of a coronavirus mutation that could help the virus spread even faster.
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David Montefiori, a surgery professor who also serves as director of the Laboratory for AIDS Vaccine Research and Development at Duke, explained that the mutated iteration is now the new normal since it appears to be the dominant strain of the virus worldwide, WTVD reported.
“It appears to spread faster,” Montefiori said. “That’s probably why the virus liked the mutation, and why it’s so dominant…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.”
Though researchers are concerned about the mutation’s greater infection rate, they don’t believe the new strain is more lethal than the original coronavirus strain.
“Within weeks, it was found in more and more people and it just kept spreading. By the end of April, it was now the dominant strain of the virus globally.”
The troubling breakthrough came a day after NC set a record on Friday with 2,099 new confirmed infections in a single day.
As of Sunday, the NC Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) 72,983 confirmed COVID-19 cases among 1,036,838 completed tests. There were 949 hospitalizations and 1,396 deaths due to the disease.
Positive tests also saw a similar decline. While 11% of Thursday’s tests were reported positive, by Friday the positive test rate had fallen to 9%. NCDHHS Secretary Mandy Cohen has previously said that she wants positive results closer to 5% of all tests.
An accurate picture of the state’s infection rate is further clouded by the findings of another group of researchers at UNC-Chapel Hill and NC State University. They published a website which estimates that the number of people who have COVID-19 may be approximately seven times the official figure. As of Saturday, the website reports a probable 497,423 infections with 617,383 projected for July 18.
Despite the dip in the official rate of infections, these estimates are concerning state officials given the crowds observed at North Carolina’s state parks and public beaches over the 4th of July weekend.
As early as Friday morning, the Wilmington Star News reported burgeoning crowds, massive traffic jams and dwindling parking options at Wrightsville Beach and Carolina Beach. Many beachgoers were spotted without face masks. By Saturday, the North Carolina State Parks and Recreation Department reported six state parks at full capacity, including Grandfather Mountain, Mount Mitchell and Raven Rock.
Meanwhile, the coronavirus mutation has spread since it was first observed in the spring.
Montefiori revealed how he and his colleagues discovered it in the first place. The researchers were studying the genetic sequence of the virus, in particular, the sequence of the spike protein. The spike protein, located on the virus’ surface, enables the virus to attach itself to a cell and infiltrate it, Montefiori explained.
Bette Korber, a colleague at Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico, analyzed data taken from people infected by the virus and discovered a mutation in the spike protein in six patients in March.
“Within weeks, it was found in more and more people,” Dr. Montefiori said. “And it just kept spreading. By the end of April, it was now the dominant strain of the virus globally.”
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