Scientists in Chile are investigating a possible mutation of the coronavirus in southern Patagonia, a far-flung region near the tip of South America that has seen an unusually contagious second wave of infections in recent weeks.
Questions have arisen as the remote region of Magallanes, which accounts for only one percent of the country’s population, reported nearly 20 percent of Chile’s total cases so far, suggesting a potential mutation of the novel virus.
While such mutations have already been observed in other places, researchers have yet to understand what their effect on humans is.
“Earlier this week, the number of people testing positive in Magallanes was the same as here in the capital, except that Magallanes has the lowest population density in the country, 170,000 versus eight million in Santiago,” said Al Jazeera’s Lucia Newman, reporting from the Chilean capital, Santiago.
“Experts say there could be many reasons, including the weather, but they can’t rule out that the new strand of the virus is mainly to blame.”
Studies outside Chile have also indicated that the coronavirus can evolve as it adapts to its human hosts.
A preliminary study that analysed the virus’s structure following two waves of infection in Houston, United States, found that a more contagious strain dominated recent samples.
Scientists say the mutations may make the virus more contagious but do not necessarily make it more deadly, nor do they necessarily inhibit the effectiveness of a potential vaccine.
“Some of these variables such as cold and wind are associated with a higher rate of spread in the world,” Marcelo Navarrete of the University of Magallanes told Reuters news agency.
The Pan American Health Organization is assisting Chilean scientists in an effort to know more, especially to confirm whether this new version of COVID-19 is more contagious than previous strands.
“If that hypothesis is validated, it would be obviously worrisome because if the degree of contagion we are seeing in Magallanes were to spread nationwide, it would mean 25,000 new cases per day, and that is a dangerous scenario indeed,” said Deputy Health Minister Arturo Zuniga.