Coronavirus mutations offer insights into virus evolution

Katie Ramirez
May 15, 2020

"So far we can not say whether SARS-CoV-2 is becoming more or less lethal and contagious".

The coronavirus strain that causes COVID-19 emerged and began quickly spreading among people at the end of past year, which means it had not been around long enough for humans to develop herd immunity as many had hoped, a study by a group of genetics researchers from the University College London Genetics Institute has found. The study was conducted at Cornell University, US. "Viruses change, evolve, mutate, and many (of those changes) are impartial", Balloux informed Euronews at a live meeting.

The Arizona study generated three full-length SARS-CoV-2 genomes from a series of samples; they found that one of these genomes, which they've named AZ-ASU2923, had a large deletion - 81 DNA base pairs - in a gene called ORF7a.

With this information in hand, researchers led by a team from UGI analyzed the genetic diversity of SARS-CoV-2 since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, focusing on mutations that emerged independently multiple times (homoplasies) as they are likely candidates for continued adaptation of the virus. The data allows them to create elaborate family trees that show how the virus spreads and to where.

The team has now developed an open-source online app for researchers to review the virus genomes.

British scientists reported that have found 198 mutation of the coronavirus.

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Jonathan Stoye, head of the division of virology at Britain's Francis Crick Institute, said that taken together, the studies offer "fascinating" insights in the evolution of the virus, and emphasise that it is "a moving target".

Meanwhile, the second study produced by a team at the Los Alamos National Laboratory has received significantly more media coverage, despite the fact it's now in the pre-print stage, and therefore hasn't been peer-reviewed yet. He divulged that, for the virus to infect a cell, spike protein features must first bind with a receptor on the surface of the host's cells.

Most mutations are neutral - they seemingly do nothing, while a few are deleterious, which will harm the virus and usually peter themselves out.

Overall, the study identifies 14 different mutations, however the mutation D614G is described in the study as being of "urgent concern".

Since the outbreak began, scientists knew the virus would mutate - as do all viruses, including the flu. Only a small percentage of all mutations are beneficial for the virus itself. Here, to develop preclinical models for such a SARS-CoV-2 vaccine, Qiang Gao and colleagues isolated an array of virus strains from 11 hospitalized patients from China, Italy, Switzerland, the United Kingdom and Spain.

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

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