Mutant strains of COVID-19 that are more contagious, but less serious, have turned up in France, possibly explaining why Europe is reporting a spike in confirmed cases.
The chief of a leading French research hospital revealed the discovery to French lawmakers last week, the Sunday Times of London reported.
Microbiologist Didier Raoult, who heads IHU Méditerranée Infection in Marseilles, told senators that the hospital’s infectious disease experts found seven coronavirus mutations during an analysis of COVID-19 tests over the summer.
One strain, Raoult theorized, was brought in by people coming from North Africa after France lifted its lockdown in June. The mutation has now disappeared, though others have popped up, the outlet reported.
“They are less severe, so something is happening with this virus, which makes it different,” Raoult testified. “The mutations we have are a rather degraded version of the initial form. At least that is our impression.”
Several scientists are disputing Raoult’s claim because of his endorsement of hydroxychloroquine as a COVID-19 cure after President Trump touted the anti-malaria drug. He has been roundly criticized for insisting that his small trial of hydroxychloroquine proved its effectiveness.
Still, Raoult’s team sorted out the strains from mountains of mass testing that the research hospital put in place after France confirmed the first cases of the virus in February.
In the past few weeks, France has seen COVID-19 intensive care admissions and deaths grow. To try to curb the numbers, the cities of Nice, Marseille and Bordeaux have imposed new restrictions on bar hours and the size of gatherings.
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