Confirmed: SARS-CoV-2 has not mutated

Grant Boone
May 10, 2020

The peer-review process helps to ensure the research has a high standard of quality and validity, but many scientists are opting to publish their work in this way to speed up discussion and collaborations with scientists working on Covid-19 vaccines or treatments.

"All viruses naturally mutate".

The question is: which of these mutations actually do anything to change the severity or infectiousness of the disease?

The project was supported by the US National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) under Centers of Excellence for Influenza Research and Surveillance (CEIRS) contract no. HHSN272201400006C, the Theme Based Research Scheme (Ref: T11-705/14N) of the Research Grants Council under University Grants Council, and a Commissioned Grant from the Health and Medical Research Fund (Ref: HKS-18-B03), Food and Health Bureau, Government of Hong Kong Special Administrative Region.

While some scientists have described the research as "fascinating", others have warned that the findings should be interpreted with caution.

They noted there seems to be something about this particular mutation that makes it grow more quickly - but the consequences of this are not yet clear.

"They found a mutation that became dominant over time but didn't do anything to show its functional significance in transmission", Columbia University virologist Angela Rasmussen tweeted.

In particular, they have identified 198 recurrent mutations of the virus' genome since its emergence, of which almost 80 percent produced non-synonymous changes at the protein level, suggesting a possible ongoing adaptation of the virus. In fact, some recovered patients did not have these antibodies at all, which, he said, suggests that their immune systems fought off the virus in some unknown way.

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Nonetheless, they argued that it's important to track changes in SARS-CoV-2 in order to avoid being blindsided by mutations that might limit the effectiveness of drugs or vaccines or might allow the virus to slip past immunity acquired to previous versions.

But publishing their analysis in the journal Virus Evolution, the Glasgow team said only one type of the virus was circulating.

In mice, rats, and nonhuman primates, a newly developed SARS-CoV-2 virus vaccine candidate induced antibodies that neutralized several different SARS-CoV-2 strains.

Take the 'flu virus: it mutates so fast that the vaccine has to be adjusted every year to deal with the specific strain in circulation.

At the moment this is all theoretical.

Another co-lead of the research, Dr Lucy van Dorp, said: "Being able to analyse such an extraordinary number of virus genomes within the first few months of the pandemic could be invaluable to drug development efforts, and showcases how far genomic research has come even within the last decade".

"It's very recent", Francois Balloux, genetic researcher at UCL's Genetics Institute told CNN.

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