A recent research by Cambridge University found three different strains of the virus in different parts of the world. As COVID-19 continues to sweep across the world, one of the main concerns is whether the virus has since mutated. We asked experts:
“Has COVID-19 mutated?”
Dr Tee Kok Keng, Head of the Pathogen Genetics & Evolution Laboratory in University of Malaya, said:
“The severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2), which causes COVID-19, is a new virus that belongs to the family Coronaviridae that normally circulate in animals and humans. Like any other viruses, SARS-CoV-2 will continue to mutate while circulating in humans. Such mutations, however, are usually minor and take a long time to accumulate. In the past four months since the outbreak has started, the virus has been spreading in many countries and genetic analysis of the virus sampled across the world has shown some degree of minor mutations that are specific to certain geographical regions.
These mutations are most likely non-alarming, but serve as a “signature” that help epidemiologists to track the movement (gene flow) of the virus. So, not all mutations are bad, per se. However, if certain mutations occur to some important proteins of the virus, either through a random event or positive selection, these mutations may change the “phenotype” or characteristics of the virus.
Such mutants may be causing more severe disease (increased virulence), more transmissible (increased virus fitness), more resistant to the human immune response (escape mutants), or simply non-detectable by the conventional diagnostic assay that was designed based on the non-mutated (wild type) strain. However, such events are yet to occur at this point. Therefore, continuous genetic surveillance and mass sequencing are essential to trace the distribution and dispersion of the virus.”
Dr Jasmine Khairat, Virologist & Senior Lecturer at Institute of Biological Sciences, Faculty of Science in University of Malaya, said:
“In every viral replication cycle, a virus will naturally mutate due to its efficient but flawed replication mechanism. However, with that being said, this will not hamper the development of current vaccines as there are multiple vaccination strategies being worked on to overcome this issue from inactivated virus, subunit proteins, messenger RNA and so on.”
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