Coronavirus Mutations May Render Search for Vaccine Futile, Researchers Find

Scientists Discover “Significant” Coronavirus Mutation Suggesting Threat to Availability of Vaccines

A team of researchers from universities in Taiwan and Australia has found the first evidence of what they called “significant” mutation of the COVID-19 virus.

COVID-19-Electron Microscope

COVID-19 Under Electron Microscope

The finding casts significant doubt on what would come out of the ongoing efforts to develop a vaccine against the virus.

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In the research, scientists found that the newly-discovered mutation results in “weaker receptor binding capability.”

The team comprised researchers from Taiwan’s National Changhua University of Education and Australia’s Murdoch University. The study, which was yet to be peer-reviewed, appeared on biorxiv.org.

“The discrepant phylogenies for the spike protein and its receptor-binding domain proved a previously reported structural rearrangement prior to the emergence of SARS-CoV-2,” the study authors wrote.

They said this was the first evidence of a “significant” mutation of the SARS-CoV-2.

The number of infections with the coronavirus across the world has since gone past the two-million mark. Currently, the United States leads the case count at more than 800,000.

There is currently no cure for COVID-19.

Major mutation

The research team studied a strain of the COVID-19 virus they isolated from a sample collected in India in January. In their analysis, they found a mutation that made the pathogen less capable of binding to a receptor on human cells.

Specifically, the mutation led to the weaker binding capability to the ACE2 receptor. ACE2 is an enzyme present in the lungs of humans.

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This finding is worrying. It suggests that the ongoing search for a vaccine may become “futile.” According to the researchers, this is especially so if more mutations are detected.

No worry about vaccine development?

However, it appears that everything is not all gloomy with regard to the search for a vaccine yet.

Scientists in the current study said the mutation rate of the virus is less worrisome. This is lower compared to that of the severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) virus.

SARS-CoV-2 also exhibits lower genetic diversity than its predecessor, which also started in China about 18 years ago.

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The lower mutation rate was not the only encouraging thing for the ongoing search for a vaccine. According to the team, the “spike (S) protein-encoding gene of SARS-COV-2 is found relatively more conserved than other protein-encoding genes.”

Also, other experts think that the frequent mutation of the coronavirus does not spell doom. It only means scientists will have to continue improving any vaccine developed.

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The New York Post quoted Jenna Macciochi, an immunology lecturer at the University of Sussex, saying that the reduced receptor binding capacity might indicate the virus being less able to infect humans.

An Italian study released weeks before this particular study showed that the coronavirus mutates rather slowly. This was after researchers studied its genetic material.

The evidence suggests that any cure could at least help a large number of people before it may need to be updated.

References

https://www.biorxiv.org/content/10.1101/2020.04.09.034942v1.full.pdf

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