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Scientists debate coronavirus evolution

Coronavirus transmission map
A graphic generated by Nextstrain shows how different variants of the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus have spread around the world. Purple streaks show where the virus was transmitted from China, green and yellow-green streaks show transmission from Europe, and red streaks show transmission from the United States. (Nextstrain.org Graphic)

Is the coronavirus behind COVID-19 turning into a more insidious pathogen? Or are such claims overblown?

A fast-moving debate over virus evolution illustrates how not-yet-vetted reports about the course of the coronavirus outbreak can go, um, viral — and how important social media channels have become in the global discussion of the science behind the pandemic.

The nature of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, is of such great interest because the disease is so deadly and disruptive: As of today, Johns Hopkins University reports nearly 3.7 million confirmed cases around the world, with a global death toll of more than 250,000. The United States accounts for 1.2 million cases and 71,000 deaths so far, and that toll could double before the worst is over.

Every day, several hundred new studies about SARS-CoV-2 and COVID-19 — most of which haven’t yet gone through the traditional peer-review process — go online, to face scrutiny by researchers and a wide swath of the general public.

One study got more than the usual traction today: The research project, led by scientists at Los Alamos National Laboratory and the University of Sheffield, looked at the way 14 variants of the virus have spread across the world.

The resulting paper was filed to the BioRxiv preprint server last week but has not yet been peer-reviewed. It concluded that one particular variant known as D614G is “of urgent concern.” That variant, a descendant of a form of the virus that started out in China, began spreading in Europe in early February and eventually made the leap to other parts of the world.

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By Alan Boyle

Mastermind of Cosmic Log, contributing editor at GeekWire, author of "The Case for Pluto: How a Little Planet Made a Big Difference," president of the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing. Check out "About Alan Boyle" for more fun facts.

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