Was a New Strain of Coronavirus Known as D614G and ‘Ten Times More Infectious’ Emerge in Malaysia in August 2020?
On August 16 2020, a number of anxiety-provoking tweets discussed the purported discovery of a new strain of SARS-CoV-2 (D614G), described as “ten times more infectious” after mutating:
The highly infectious Covid-19 mutation, known as D614G, has been detected in the country.
Dr Noor Hisham said the virus with the D614G mutation was highly infectious and “found to be 10 times easier to infect other individuals”.
Full report: https://t.co/fNfhO4NnaR pic.twitter.com/9U08KexQMF
— The Star (@staronline) August 17, 2020
“The mutation called D614G was found in at least three of the 45 cases in a cluster that started from a restaurant owner returning from India and breaching his 14-day home quarantine. The man has since been sentenced to five months in prison and fined.” https://t.co/lv0cDAcDnD
— Adrian Carrasquillo (@Carrasquillo) August 17, 2020
Social Media Posts About a ‘New Strain of Coronavirus’ Which is ‘Ten Times More Infectious’
Most sources for the claim were tabloid newspapers (such as Australia’s The Star), or news organizations in Southeast Asia. Bloomberg Quint, an Indian subset of Bloomberg, published the following tweet on the evening of August 16 2020:
JUST IN: Malaysia detects new coronavirus strain that’s 10 times more infectious https://t.co/HQs0FnfmkR
— Bloomberg (@business) August 17, 2020
A post about the claim also appeared on r/worldnews:
’10 times more infectious’ D614G coronavirus strain detected in Malaysia from worldnews
Sources for the Claims About D614G in Malaysia
Although the news seemed to be of interest in the United States, few, if any, outlets covered the purported novel strain of coronavirus.
Yahoo! News India syndicated an article about the claims on August 17 2020. According to that story, the source was a Facebook post by Malaysia’s Director General of Health Noor Hisham Abdullah:
Recently, scientists in Malaysia detected a strain of the new coronavirus that’s been found to be 10 times more infectious. The mutation called D614G was found in at least three of the 45 cases in a cluster that started when a restaurant owner and permanent resident returned to the country from India breaching his 14-day home quarantine.
According to Director General of Health Noor Hisham Abdullah’s Facebook post, the D614G mutation was found by scientists in July 2020 and will probably lead to an existing vaccine study not to include or not effective in this mutation.
However, the very next line described D614G as the “predominant strain” in Europe and the United States:
The D614G mutation has become the predominant variant in Europe and the U.S., with the World Health Organization saying there’s no evidence the strain leads to a more severe disease.
At the beginning of the same article, the following phrase appeared — but no citations or links to corroborating information were included:
However, recent studies have shown that D614G mutation in the spike protein of coronavirus makes it more infectious, transmissible, and deadly.
On August 17 2020, Bloomberg Quint reported:
Southeast Asia is facing a strain of the new coronavirus that the Philippines, which faces the region’s largest outbreak, is studying to see whether the mutation makes it more infectious.
The strain, earlier seen in other parts of the world and called D614G, was found in a Malaysian cluster of 45 cases that started from someone who returned from India and breached his 14-day home quarantine. The Philippines detected the strain among random Covid-19 samples in the largest city of its capital region.
The mutation “is said to have a higher possibility of transmission or infectiousness, but we still don’t have enough solid evidence to say that that will happen,” Philippines’ Health Undersecretary Maria Rosario Vergeire said in a virtual briefing on [August 17 2020].
That article also cited the Facebook post, and noted that it included no corroborating evidence:
There’s no evidence from the epidemiology that the mutation is considerably more infectious than other strains, said Benjamin Cowling, head of epidemiology and biostatistics at the University of Hong Kong. “It’s more commonly identified now than it was in the past, which suggests that it might have some kind of competitive advantage over other strains of Covid-19,” he said.
“People need to be wary and take greater precautions because this strain has now been found in Malaysia,” the country’s Director-General of Health Noor Hisham Abdullah wrote in a Facebook post, saying the strain can make it 10 times more infectious without citing a study. “The people’s cooperation is very needed so that we can together break the chain of infection from any mutation.”
As of August 17 2020, the headline on the Bloomberg Quint item read: “Southeast Asia Detects Mutated Virus Strain Sweeping the World.” But the item’s URL and Google results indicated it originally featured this headline:
Although it appeared the piece was originally titled “Malaysia Detects Coronavirus Strain That’s 10 Times More Infectious,” no editor’s note or other indication marked the possible post-publication edit. We were unable to locate any cached or archived versions of the article.
Bloomberg.com picked up the article, where the same mismatched title and URL were visible. We located the original article on archive.is, and it did in fact feature the headline “Malaysia Detects Coronavirus Strain That’s 10 Times More Infectious.”
In its original form, the article did not include comment from epidemiologists as quoted above:
Malaysia has detected a strain of the new coronavirus that’s been found to be 10 times more infectious.
The mutation called D614G was found in at least three of the 45 cases in a cluster that started from a restaurant owner returning from India and breaching his 14-day home quarantine. The man has since been sentenced to five months in prison and fined. The strain was also found in another cluster involving people returning from the Philippines.
The strain could mean that existing studies on vaccines may be incomplete or ineffective against the mutation, said Director-General of Health Noor Hisham Abdullah.
The mutation has become the predominant variant in Europe and the U.S., with the World Health Organization saying there’s no evidence the strain leads to a more severe disease. A paper published in Cell Press said the mutation is unlikely to have a major impact on the efficacy of vaccines currently being developed.
Bloomberg.com did not add an editor’s note clarifying that the title had been changed from “Malaysia Detects Coronavirus Strain That’s 10 Times More Infectious” to “Southeast Asia Detects Mutated Virus Strain Sweeping the World,” and neither did it indicate the content of the article had been meaningfully altered. In its place, the dateline read:
August 16, 2020, 8:27 PM EDT Updated on August 17, 2020, 6:00 AM EDT
The Facebook Post
On August 15 2020, Abdullah shared the following post:
An automatic translation by Facebook converted the post to English:
Latest recent results received from the Laboratory Medical Research Institute (IMR): as suspected D614G type mutation has been spotted from COVID-19 virus isolation test for three (3) cases from Cluster PUI Sivagangga (close contact to index case) and also a case from Cluster Ulu Tiram (i.e. individual from the Philippines).
So far these two clusters are found quite controlled by the results of various fast-paced public health control actions in the field. This test is an early test and there are several follow-up tests in progress to test several other cases, including index cases for both these clusters.
So, this means that people need to be aware and be more careful because the COVID-19 virus with this D614G mutation has been proven to be detected in Malaysia. It’s found 10 times easier to infect other individuals and spread easily if spread by the individual ‘ super spreader ‘.
This D614G mutation was found by scientists in July 2020 and will probably lead to an existing vaccine study not to include or not effective in this mutation.
Reports of a “new strain of coronavirus” called D614G and described as “ten times” more infectious than circulating strains spread in non-medical news outlets, and the claim was originally reported by Bloomberg.com on August 16 2020. That seemingly viral article was quietly changed after it began circulating, changing the headline (“Malaysia Detects Coronavirus Strain That’s 10 Times More Infectious”) and adding significant context to the body of the reporting. No note from an editor appeared to explain the changes, but the additional context implied that no credible citation yet existed to support the claim.