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What Do Studies on New Coronavirus Mutations Tell Us?

The ultrastructural morphology exhibited by the 2019 Novel Coronavirus (2019-nCoV), which was identified as the cause of an outbreak of respiratory illness first detected in Wuhan, China, is seen in an illustration released by the Centers for Disease Cont
What Do Studies on New Coronavirus Mutations Tell Us?
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Studies of genetic material from thousands of samples of the novel coronavirus show that it is changing. Experts say those findings might affect the current pandemic and efforts to develop vaccines and treatments.

The GISAID Initiative is a partnership between a not-for-profit group and the governments of Germany, Singapore, and the United States. The initiative was formerly called the Global Initiative on Sharing All Influenza Data. It collects records of genetic information on influenza viruses and releases them to the public.

Researchers in the United States used GISAID data to follow genetic changes, or mutations, in the “spike” of the new coronavirus. The spike is the part of the coronavirus that gives it its unusual shape.

The researchers said they discovered 14 such mutations early in their investigation at the Los Alamos National Laboratory. They noted that one, called D614G, was “of urgent concern” because it may make the disease more infectious.

Using the same GISAID records, a team in Britain studied genetic material from more than 7,500 virus samples from infected patients around the world.

The team is from University College London. They reported finding 198 mutations in the coronavirus genomes they examined, but none appeared to be of special concern.

Scientists at Britain’s Glasgow University also studied mutations in the samples of the genomes. But they found these changes did not confirm the existence of different strains of the virus.

That finding disproved an earlier study by Chinese researchers. Their study suggested there had been two strains in patients at the start of the COVID-19 outbreak in China. One of the strains had been noted as more “aggressive,” the researchers said.

Eric Topol is a heart specialist and geneticist. He established the Scripps Research Translational Institute in La Jolla, California. He told the Reuters news agency the idea that there are several strains of the virus must be rejected.

“We know there is only one strain,” Topol said.

Jonathan Stoye is head of virology at Britain’s Francis Crick Institute. He said that taken together, the studies offer an interesting look at the coronavirus, and show that it is “a moving target.”

“The virus is evolving and is changing. And we don’t yet know what the consequences of those changes are,” Stoye said.

“This coronavirus mutates just like any good RNA virus should,” added Mark Schleiss, a molecular genetics expert. He is with the University of Minnesota Medical School.

Genetics and biology experts say it is still too early to know whether any of the mutations are meaningful.

Lawrence Young is a professor of molecular oncology at the University of Warwick in Britain. He said that while there have been many predictions about the rise of more aggressive strains, studies so far show that is not the case.

Eric Topol noted scientists will have to examine exactly how a given genetic mutation affects the behavior of the virus to find out more.

I’m Pete Musto.

Kate Kelland reported this story for the Reuters news agency. Pete Musto adapted it for VOA Learning English. George Grow was the editor.

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Words in This Story

sample(s) – n. a small amount of something that gives you information about the thing it was taken from

pandemicn. an occurrence in which a disease spreads very quickly and affects a large number of people over a wide area or throughout the world

strain(s) – n. a group of closely related plants, animals or other organisms

outbreakn. a sudden start or increase of fighting or disease

targetn. a place, thing, or person at which an attack is aimed

consequence(s) – n. something that happens as a result of a particular action or set of conditions

RNA n. a substance in the cells of plants and animals that helps make proteins

oncologyn. the study and treatment of cancer and tumors