Coronavirus has killed 3,285 people worldwide and infected more than 95,000 people in 83 countries. Work on a vaccine has been underway for weeks but it may not be ready for over a year.
Has COVID-19 mutated?
Complicating matters when it comes to developing a vaccine is the fact COVID-19 has mutated.
Scientists have confirmed the virus has evolved into two strains: the ‘L-type’ and the ‘S-type’.
The latter is the older version of the virus and appears to be milder and less infectious.
The L-type can spread quickly and scientists from Peking University’s School of Life Sciences and the Institute Pasteur of Shanghai say it could be more aggressive.
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The S and L mutations in COVID-19 were in the virus’ protein ‘spike’, said Dr Stephen Griffin, of the Leeds Institute of Medical Research and chair of the virus division at the Microbiology Society
The spike plays a key part in the infection process and is what vaccines target.
Around 35 labs and institutions are developing a vaccine with some ready for human trials next month.
Dr Griffin said developers would need to test if their prototype vaccines can still neutralise viruses with the mutations, which may not be a “huge hurdle” as the variations were “fairly limited”.
Genetic analysis of a man in the US who tested positive for COVID-19 in January showed it is possible to be infected with both the mutations.
Virologist Professor Jonathan Ball said the mutations could hinder vaccine manufacturing and that the Chinese scientists’ findings would need to be studied with a larger sample of cases as the data set used was small.
Professor Ball said: “At the moment we don’t have hard evidence that the virus has changes with regards to disease severity or infectivity so we need to be cautious when interpreting these kinds of computer-based studies, interesting as they might be.”
The Chinese study analysed DNA from 103 infected people and reported that the S-type was taking over, perhaps as a result of the severe lockdown measures imposed by China’s authorities.
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New mutations were also found in a man from Brazil, but London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine’s Dr David Heyman believes a vaccine should still work on the new strain.
He said: “Nothing has occurred that is major and this virus appears to be stable.
“Small mutations are normal, especially with RNA viruses. We look for the parts of the virus that are most sustained.”
So far the mutations are minor and do not pose a significant threat to vaccinations, however, that could change if the virus continues to develop new strains.
What is virus mutation?
A virus can undergo changes in its DNA and RNA.
These changes to the protein that the gene encodes can in some cases lead to resistance to antiviral drugs.
Changes to the genome in influenza viruses may result in pandemics.
Different strains of a virus with a certain type of genome can shuffle and combine genes.
This leads to the production of offspring viruses that have their own unique characteristics.
Genetic recombination is the process by which a strand of DNA is broken and then joined to the end of a different DNA molecule.
This can happen when viruses infect cells at the same time.
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