Chile scientists study potential coronavirus mutation in remote Patagonia

SANTIAGO (Reuters) - Scientists in Chile are investigating a possible mutation of the novel coronavirus in Southern Patagonia, a distant region near the tip of the South American continent that has had an unusually contagious second wave of infections in recent weeks.
Dr. Marcelo Navarrete of the University of Magallanes told Reuters in an interview that researchers had found "structural changes" in the tips of the characteristic, crown-shaped virus. He said research was ongoing to better understand the possible mutation and its effects on humans.
"The only thing we know so far is that this coincides in time and space with a second wave that is quite intense in the region," said Navarrete.
The Magallanes region of Chile is largely a remote, glacier-strewn wilderness with small towns and the regional center of Punta Arenas, which has seen cases of COVID-19 spike in September and October after a first wave earlier this year.
In the hardest hit region, the hospitals are almost full. Officials from the Chilean Ministry of Health said they have started evacuating sick residents from the area to the capital, Santiago.
Other studies outside of Chile have also shown that the coronavirus can develop as it adapts to its human hosts.
A preliminary study that analyzed the structure of the virus after two waves of infection in the US city of Houston found that an infectious strain dominated the most recent samples.
Navarrete admitted that similar mutations had been seen elsewhere, but said the relative isolation and harsh climate of the Magallanes region, known for its cold and windy region, may have exaggerated its effects.
"Some of these variables, such as cold and wind, are linked to a higher rate of spread in the world," said Navarrete.
Scientists say the mutations can make the virus more contagious, but not necessarily make it more deadly, nor inhibit the effectiveness of a potential vaccine.

(Reporting by Reuters TV, writing by Dave Sherwood; editing by Hugh Lawson)

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