Coronavirus Mutations Aren’t Necessarily Bad News

11:23 minutes

A new report in the LA Times this week came with an alarming headline: preliminary research out of Los Alamos National Laboratory claimed the pandemic coronavirus has mutated to become more contagious. 

But viral mutation happens all the time. While it’s reasonable to assume COVID-19 has undergone mutations since January, Gizmodo reporter Ryan Mandelbaum says we should be skeptical about the claim that the virus has become more infectious as a result. Plus more on why it’s so difficult to parse the fast flow of coronavirus research, an impossible-seeming bird hybrid in southern California, and what happens when you eat a so-called murder hornet.

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Segment Guests

Ryan Mandelbaum

Ryan Mandelbaum is a science writer and birder based in Brooklyn, New York.

Segment Transcript

JOHN DANKOSKY: This is Science Friday. I’m John Dankosky, sitting in for Ira Flatow. Just a quick note here– we won’t be taking any calls for this pre-recorded hour. And Ira’s just fine. He’s just having a long planned staycation week.

Later this hour, we’ll talk about how the coronavirus is disproportionately affecting some communities in the United States, and the systemic reasons for why that is. But first you may have seen the story. It looked frightening, to be sure. To researchers at Los Alamos National laboratory in New Mexico say that after studying the genome of the novel coronavirus, in cases both old and new, the virus is mutating. And they say those mutations are making the virus more contagious.

But there are reasons to be skeptical about that claim. Viruses mutate all the time, for starters. And there may not be much evidence that these mutations are actually affecting how infectious the coronavirus is. Here to explain a bit more, plus other recent science news, is Ryan Mandelbaum. He’s a science writer for Gizmodo. He joins me today from Brooklyn, New York. Ryan, welcome back to Science Friday.

RYAN MANDELBAUM: Always great to be here, John. Thanks for having me.

JOHN DANKOSKY: So I need to know, first of all, what’s wrong with this study about the mutating coronavirus?

RYAN MANDELBAUM: So a lot of this study is sort of thought work, you know, just connecting the dots on previously recorded data. And then the study was put on the bio archive preprint server, which means that the study was not peer reviewed. So that’s important. Because it means that you know these researchers are trying to get this research that could be important out quickly. But other scientists haven’t been able to take the time to take a look, and look for any potential issues with the work.

JOHN DANKOSKY: So when we’re reading something like this, we should be pretty skeptical. And we should not necessarily start to get very, very worried.

RYAN MANDELBAUM: That’s right. As a reader of science news, when you see a big, scary headline, I think the first thing that you really need to do is start looking for keywords in the news story, sort of saying whether or not the study was peer reviewed, or perhaps saying where it came from, who did it, who funded it.

So this is just a good example of a time where it is possible, what the study is saying. But it’s also possible that it’s not. So we do have to be cautious when reading these kinds of stories.

JOHN DANKOSKY: Are there any other plausible conclusions about whether this virus might mutate the way that the flu does, for example?

RYAN MANDELBAUM: Right, so it is possible that this virus can mutate. All viruses mutate. But a mutation doesn’t necessarily cause it to become more contagious or more harmful. And in fact, this study might just be a case of correlation versus causation, which is that just around the time it took on this new mutated form, was right when it was starting to spread in Europe. And there weren’t a lot of measures in place to stop it.

So it’s possible that it’s just, the timing was what caused it to suddenly look more contagious than anything.

JOHN DANKOSKY: Well since we’re talking about Europe, let’s move to another story about a potential case in France. And this, Ryan, was from well before anyone thought coronavirus was actually in France. What’s going on here?

RYAN MANDELBAUM: That’s right. So another paper suggests that COVID was around earlier than it was previously recorded. So back in December, there was a man in France who reported pneumonia like symptoms at a hospital in Paris. Swabs were taken and saved. And just recently, scientists re-analyzed these swabs. And they appeared to test positive for coronavirus.

Now, the reason why this is worrisome is because the first official cases in France weren’t recorded until January. And this man didn’t have a history of traveling to China. So this immediately set off alarm bells that maybe the coronavirus was spreading earlier than previously thought.

JOHN DANKOSKY: Ryan, in that first story, I’ve heard some criticism of this research, too. I’m wondering if you can talk more about that.

RYAN MANDELBAUM: That’s right. Just like some of the other studies that we’ve seen, is that this is a– these are quickly moving studies. This is a single case. We don’t know for sure that these tests weren’t false positives. And actually, Nat Geo science editor Nsikan Akpan on Twitter, said that there actually is some things that we need to be doubtful of. So for example, France’s death rates of the coronavirus aren’t actually consistent with an earlier than expected start date to the pandemic.

JOHN DANKOSKY: It’s felt like half the work we’ve been doing here on Science Friday is debunking coronavirus stories, looking at the stories exactly the way that we are right now. What is it about this virus, Ryan, that makes all this information just so slippery? I mean, how are we supposed to figure out what’s true and what’s not as things are coming out?

RYAN MANDELBAUM: So I think that there are some core truths that we know, which is that it’s incredibly contagious. And it can be incredibly harmful if we’re not social distancing. But at the same time, we do need to be taking into account these most recent results, but with the knowledge that these are being done for scientists. And as new results are coming out, you know, scientists need to know these things.

So you, as the general public, really need to– if you’re staying informed, you always need to take, just remember that science is a process. And that there is a peer review for a reason. So just don’t panic when you read a new headline. Just try and think like a scientist does and say OK, well, you know, more scientists are going to comment on this.This story is going to develop. And just to try and keep those things in mind.

JOHN DANKOSKY: It’s also why we need more science journalists like you.

RYAN MANDELBAUM: That’s right. Thanks.

JOHN DANKOSKY: So let’s move on to some happier news here. Scientists think that they’ve solved one very perplexing space mystery. So tell us about the space mystery, Ryan.

RYAN MANDELBAUM: Yes, so I think a lot of your listeners might have heard of fast radio bursts. But if they haven’t, these are powerful blasts of radio waves that seem to originate from outside of the galaxy, which were first spotted by the parts radio telescope around 20 years ago. So we’ve seen a lot more of these bursts since then. And we still don’t really know what they are.

A lot of people say, oh, well, maybe it’s aliens. But others suggest that maybe it’s these really highly magnetic neutron stars called magnetars. So what’s exciting is that last week, telescopes spotted a bright flash of x-rays from the direction of a magnetar. And then this special chime radio telescope saw a bright flash of radio waves right at the same time in its peripheral vision. So this could mean that we maybe just saw the origin of one of these fast radio bursts in our own galaxy. And that’s really cool.

JOHN DANKOSKY: It’s really cool. What exactly does it mean, though? What does it tell us?

RYAN MANDELBAUM: It would be telling us that the originator of these weird radio births are these magnetars. That would confirm it. And everybody loves the solving of an extraterrestrial mystery. But it’s also an exciting opportunity to better understand these really weird magnetars, which are just strange objects. I mean, neutron stars are weird. Magnetic neutron stars are weird.

But of course, with every science story, there’s a caveat here, which is that they’re still working on trying to interpret what this radio flash was. And it’s unclear whether this radio flash would have been visible outside the galaxy, which would have confirmed that it is a fast radio burst. So we’re getting there. But what we haven’t solved everything just yet.

JOHN DANKOSKY: We haven’t solved everything just yet. And it’s unclear as to whether or not this points to anything beyond the magnetar mystery, about the evolution of stars, or the overall logic of the cosmos. It might not be that big of discovery.

RYAN MANDELBAUM: No, I don’t think we’ve sort of uncovered the core truth of the universe just yet.

JOHN DANKOSKY: Well, let’s move on to something that I know is very near and dear to your heart– birds. The birds are in full migration right now. And there’s a very weird bird that’s been seen again in Southern California. Maybe you can tell us about this bird.

RYAN MANDELBAUM: Yes, so this bird first showed up last fall. And the bird watching community went wild over it. Because it appeared to be the hybrid of two different families of birds. So their species is– there’s different species. There’s different geneses. But this bird would have been different families. And scientists don’t really know what’s going on here. I mean, the one parent would have been a bird called a yellow breasted chat, which is hard to understand bird. Scientists have wondered where it belongs in these evolutionary family tree for a very long time, and would have hybridize with an oriole.

Now it’s– they’re still trying to work out which kind of oriole and how distantly related these birds would have been. But I think a good sort of measure is that lions and tigers lived– they diverged less than four million years ago, while the chat and the closest relative, the hooded oriole, would have diverged around 10 million years ago. So they are quite different.

JOHN DANKOSKY: Are there any other hybrids like this in the bird world, that you know of?

RYAN MANDELBAUM: Well, birds do hybridize. Interspecies hybrids are pretty common. Inter genus hybrids aren’t as common. But they do happen. But inter family hybrids are quite strange. And I think that what scientists– if they could ultimately take DNA evidence, and then confirm that this is more than just a bird that looks like a hybrid– they might be able to honestly establish where exactly this yellow breasted chap belongs in the family tree of birds. And it might just belong in the same family as the oriole all along.

JOHN DANKOSKY: As a bird Watcher and a bird lover yourself, how exciting is stuff like this to you?

RYAN MANDELBAUM: I love it. I’ve been following this. I mean, when the story first came out in September, I was all over it. And then just to hear that this bird has come back, and it’s now singing, which means that it survived the winter. And it’s looking for a mate. You know, who’s the mate going to be? It’s just very exciting stuff.

JOHN DANKOSKY: OK, so here’s a story that I think a lot of people have been following along. And you’ve got a very small individualized piece of it. We’ve been reading about the murder Hornet. And you’ve written about how you actually once ate a murder hornet? Explain, what the heck happened here?

RYAN MANDELBAUM: Yeah, well, they are edible. I mean, in East Asia, there are countries that do eat this. But I guess what I want to stress is that, why is it so weird?

JOHN DANKOSKY: Well, I mean, people are scared about murder hornets. The idea that you would be voluntarily eating one, I think maybe might give some pause.

RYAN MANDELBAUM: That’s– it makes sense. But I think that there’s an entire world of eating edible insects out there. And it just so happens that these murder hornets, as they’re called, or actually, Asian giant hornets, are eaten. And cooking them does denature the venom. You don’t have to worry about that.

The flavor, I honestly don’t quite remember it. Because it was on a night that I ate a lot of insects. But my friend and chef, Joseph Yoon, said that it’s got a very grainy, almost earthy kind of flavor to it. I had it on lobster. But he’s sauteed it and put it on top of noodle dishes, and in spring rolls. And it tastes great.

And honestly, edible insects are having sort of a moment right now. And you know, why not think about eating these murder Hornets? I do want to add that murder hornets are not quite a big deal as perhaps some of the headlines have made them seem they’ve only barely been seen in the Pacific northwest and they’re not in any huge numbers.

JOHN DANKOSKY: So this is not something people should worry about either coming to murder them or something that probably is going to be on the menu anytime soon at most US restaurants?

RYAN MANDELBAUM: I don’t think so. I think the number one thing I want to stress is that if you see a hornet in your backyard, and you’re not in the Pacific Northwest, and it looks big, it’s likely a native hornet that you should leave alone.

JOHN DANKOSKY: Sounds good. Ryan Mandelbaum is a science writer for Gizmodo. Thanks so much for sharing all of these stories. I really appreciate it. Thanks for having me, John. I had a great time.

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Meet the Producers and Host

About Christie Taylor

Christie Taylor was a producer for Science Friday. Her days involved diligent research, too many phone calls for an introvert, and asking scientists if they have any audio of that narwhal heartbeat.

About John Dankosky

John Dankosky works with the radio team to create our weekly show, and is helping to build our State of Science Reporting Network. He’s also been a long-time guest host on Science Friday. He and his wife have three cats, thousands of bees, and a yoga studio in the sleepy Northwest hills of Connecticut. 

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