Recent scientific tests are starting to reveal more about the coronavirus, known technically as COVID-19, including one recent discovery: that the virus has at least 40 mutations.
As the coronavirus pandemic continues to sweep the world, scientists are scrambling to discover as much information as they can that could help to slow the spread of the deadly pathogen. Now, with evidence that the coronavirus mutates, they are hoping that they can learn more through studying the virus’ genes – perhaps eventually helping to find a future treatment.
But what does it mean for a virus to mutate, and why does it matter? Here is everything you need to know.
Mutations in coronavirus: Evidence
Evidence that the coronavirus mutates was brought to attention back in late February by Christian Drosten, the head of the Institute of Virology at the Charité University Hospital in Berlin.
Drosten studied a German patient who had caught coronavirus in Italy, and a separate German patient who had caught coronavirus a month before in Munich. Both cases had three genetic mutations which had not been seen in any samples from Wuhan, China, where the pathogen first broke out.
Based on this evidence, Drosten suggested that it was likely that a Chinese variant carrying the three mutations had taken independent routes to Germany and Italy.
Since then, further tests have revealed more evidence that the coronavirus mutates.
In early March, Chinese researchers identified 149 mutations in the 103 sequenced genomes of the coronavirus.
In the same week, Scientists from Brazil and the United Kingdom said the samples collected from the first patient in Latin America was slightly different from the strain from Wuhan by three mutations.
More recently, Iceland’s high-volume testing revealed there are at least 40 mutations of the virus in the country of 340,000 people alone.
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Is it normal for viruses to mutate?
Yes. According to scientists, it is normal for viruses to mutate.
“Viruses mutate naturally as part of their life cycle,” said Ewan Harrison, scientific project manager for the COVID-19 Genomics UK Consortium, a new project that tracks the virus in the United Kingdom.
Dr Derek Gatherer, an infectious disease specialist at Lancaster University, said he was not surprised with the findings in Iceland.
“This is much as we would expect. All viruses accumulate mutations, but few of them are of much medical consequence,” he said.
Like all viruses, coronavirus evolves over time through random mutations, added Andrew Rambaut, a molecular evolutionary biologist at the University of Edinburgh.
“Over the length of its 30,000-base-pair genome, SARS-CoV-2 accumulates an average of about one to two mutations per month,” he said.
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What can scientists learn from the mutations?
As the coronavirus continues to spread across the globe, the virus is changing its genetic makeup. According to scientists, genomic sequencing of the samples will help understand the spread of the virus and guide treatments.
“Genomic sequencing will help us understand COVID-19 and its spread. It can also help guide treatments in the future and see the impact of interventions,” Patrick Vallance, British government’s chief scientific adviser, said in the statement on Monday.
UK scientists are using gene sequencing to analyze the strains causing thousands of coronavirus infections across the country. Working in teams across Britain, scientists will map out and analyze the full genetic codes of the COVID-19 samples, Reuters reported.
Researchers at DeCode genetics, who conducted the testing which revealed 40 mutations in Iceland, said on Monday that the variants discovered could act as the fingerprints of the virus to trace its origin. Seven of the infected people were traced to an undisclosed football match in England, the researchers said.
Kári Stefánsson, director of DeCode Genetics, said, “We can see how viruses mutate. We have found 40 island-specific virus mutations … We found someone who had a mixture of viruses.”
Stefánsson added, “Some came from Austria. There is another type from people who were infected in Italy. And there is a third type of virus found in people infected in England. Seven people had attended a football match in England.”
“It is interesting with the 40 specific variants that fall into three clusters that can be traced back to specific sources of infection,” Allan Randrup Thomsen, a virologist with the Department of Immunology and Microbiology at the University of Copenhagen, said. “Coronavirus is known as a virus that can mutate reasonably violently. We have seen reports of variants from China already. That way, it fits well with what one expects.”
Rambaut also pointed to the speed of the coronavirus as revealing information about its nature.
“It’s about two to four times slower than the flu,” he said. “Using these little changes, researchers can draw up phylogenetic trees, much like family trees. They can also make connections between different cases of COVID-19 and gauge whether there might be undetected spread of the virus.”
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How do mutations affect immunity?
Could coronavirus mutate into a different strain so that it would be able to overcome the built-up immune defenses? Not necessarily, according to experts.
“I would predict that SARSCoV2 will behave similarly to existing seasonal coronaviruses in its ability to mutate to avoid vaccines and immunity,” says Trevor Bedford of the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, who analyzes the stream of viral genomes and discusses them in Twitter threads.
He says almost all the mutations of coronavirus will have little to no effect on the function of the virus.
“My prediction is that we should see occasional mutations to the spike protein of SARSCoV2 that allow the virus to partially escape from vaccines or existing “herd” immunity, but that this process will most likely take years rather than months,” he tweeted.
Since its outbreak, the coronavirus is mutating in the way that all viruses do, but it hasn’t changed in any important way.
“The virus has been remarkably stable given how much transmission we’ve seen,” says Lisa Gralinski of the University of North Carolina. “That makes sense, because there’s no evolutionary pressure on the virus to transmit better.”
Read more: Coronavirus: What is herd immunity and will it affect the pandemic?
How do mutations impact the development of a vaccine?
Coronavirus mutations have not impacted the development of a vaccine against the disease, says Zhou Qi, deputy secretary general of the Chinese Academy of Sciences.
“We have received a lot of information about the mutations of the virus. However, the mutations seen in the virus so far have not affected vaccine development and research,” Qi said. “We are actively monitoring the degree to which the virus mutates, we are conducting research.”
According to Bedford it will take a few years for coronavirus to mutate enough to significantly hinder a vaccine.
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