COVID-19 Update: Spike Protein and Emerging Variants

March 20th, 2021. By Ethan Tam '22

New research shows that a sturdier spike protein on the new COVID-19 variants may allow the virus to spread more quickly.

In the past couple of months, reports have come out about COVID-19 variants in different areas of the world. As of this time of publication, 3 variants have been found, each originating from the United Kingdom, South Africa, and Brazil. Variants occur when the coronavirus’s RNA has a mutation, which can positively or negatively affect the virus’s transmission abilities or symptoms. Currently, it seems that these variants are surviving and spreading more quickly, as patients have contracted them in different areas of the United States.

Professor Bing Chen of Boston Children's Hospital recently published a research paper on why these variants spread more easily. With electron microscopy technology, his team found out that the D614G mutation that is in all three variants has a single substitution of a nucleotide that allows the spike protein to become sturdier. Usually, in the non-mutated coronavirus strain, this spike protein on the virus binds to the ACE2 receptor, a receptor found in many human body cells. Upon binding, the virus can enter and infect the cell. However, sometimes the spike protein would change shape before binding to the receptor, resulting in no infection. Professor Chen found that the mutation in the variants usually prevents this possibility of failure by blocking the premature conformational change in the spike protein. He concluded that the D614G mutation results in a higher percentage of sturdier spike proteins than the original strain and that more research into the virus’ and cells’ structures needs to be done to create a treatment against the binding and infection of COVID-19. In addition, he says that the vaccines available now should still work as a preventive measure against the new strains, since they do incorporate the mutated spike protein’s code.

The SI community should do our part to stop the spread of the new strains by continuing to social distance and wear masks as we open up.





Distinct conformational states of SARS-CoV-2 spike protein

Yongfei Cai, Jun Zhang, Tianshu Xiao, Hanqin Peng, Sarah M. Sterling, Richard M.Walsh Jr., Shaun Rawson, Sophia Rits-Volloch, Bing Chen

bioRxiv 2020.05.16.099317; doi: