SINGAPORE: A mutation of the novel coronavirus increasingly common throughout Europe and recently detected in Malaysia may be more infectious but appears less deadly, according to infectious diseases expert Paul Tambyah.
Dr Tambyah, a senior consultant at the National University of Singapore and president-elect of the US-based International Society of Infectious Diseases, said the D614G mutation has also been found in Singapore.
There is evidence the proliferation of the mutation in Europe has coincided with a drop in death rates, suggesting it is less lethal, Dr Tambyah said.
READ: COVID-19 virus mutation that is '10 times' more infectious detected in Malaysia: Health director-general
The mutation is not likely to impact the efficacy of a potential vaccine, despite warnings to the contrary from other health experts, he added.
"Maybe that's a good thing to have a virus that is more infectious but less deadly," Dr Tambyah told Reuters.
He said most viruses tend to become less virulent as they mutate.
"It is in the virus' interest to infect more people but not to kill them because a virus depends on the host for food and for shelter," he said.
Scientists discovered the mutation as early as February and it has circulated in Europe and the Americas, the World Health Organization said. The WHO has also said there is no evidence the mutation has led to more severe disease.
On Sunday, Malaysia's director-general of health Noor Hisham Abdullah urged greater public vigilance after authorities detected what they believe was the D614G mutation of the coronavirus in two recent clusters.
Dr Noor Hisham said the new strain detected was 10 times more infectious and that vaccines currently in development may not be effective against this mutation.
But Dr Tambyah said such mutations would not likely change the virus enough to make potential vaccines less effective.
"The mutant affects the binding of the spike protein and not necessarily the recognition of the protein by the immune system, which would be primed by a vaccine," he said.
VARIANT HAS BEEN AROUND SINCE END-FEBRUARY
In response to queries from CNA, Dr Sebastian Maurer-Stroh from the Agency for Science, Technology and Research (A*STAR) said the D614G variant has been around since end-February.
However, current containment measures have "prevented large-scale spread" of this variant in Singapore, the deputy executive director of research said.
"Since this variant has been circulating globally it can be expected to be seen in any country, and every country with active surveillance has seen it already, especially related to import from travellers," Dr Maurer-Stroh said.
He added that viruses evolve naturally through selection, and most mutations have no effect. Other mutations may not lead to more severe clinical symptoms, but make that virus "more successful relative to others".
However, this does not necessarily mean the virus would become more virulent. Instead, this could make the virus milder or asymptomatic, causing longer and undetected infection, said Dr Maurer-Stroh.
Only in rarer cases could the virus develop an increased ability to bind to human cells, enhanced replication or evasion of host response, he said, which increases the transmissibility and severity of the virus.
"As the outbreak evolves over time and more data becomes available, new variants will appear. These are part of the natural evolution of the virus typically not associated with any differences in virulence," said Dr Maurer-Stroh.
Additional reporting by Cindy Co.