Reports say Covid-19 has mutated

Tuesday May 12 2020

The coronavirus, COVID-19

An illustration image of the Covid-19 coronavirus, obtained on February 27, 2020, courtesy of the US Food and Drug Administration. PHOTO | AFP  

ELIZABETH MERAB
By ELIZABETH MERAB
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East African countries will need to tighten their belts to not only deal with community transmission but also grapple with challenges of a mutated virus.

A new study shows that the Covid-19 caused by the SARS-CoV-2 virus, which emerged in Wuhan, China, over four months ago, has since mutated. The virus, Severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2) is the strain of coronavirus that causes coronavirus disease 2019 (Covid-19) and is mainly transmitted through droplets generated when an infected person coughs, sneezes, or exhales.

TOO HEAVY

These droplets are too heavy to hang in the air, and quickly fall on floors or surfaces.

Infected travellers (primarily by air) are known to be responsible for introductions of the virus outside Wuhan. All viruses mutate, and the coronavirus is no exception. A pre-print study — posted online, but not published in a scientific journal and not yet peer-reviewed — has set the Internet afire by suggesting that a version of the new coronavirus with a particular mutation is out-competing all the rest.

The researchers, from the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico, have been tracking changes to the "spike" of the virus that gives it its distinctive shape, using a database called the Global Initiative on Sharing All Influenza Data (GISAID).

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The strain is of "urgent concern. It began spreading in Europe in early February, and when introduced to new regions, it rapidly becomes the dominant form,” the scientists wrote in the paper posted last week.

MORE CONTAGIOUS

Because of this, the team of scientists suggested, that the strain may be more contagious than the original virus that first spread in China.

The news comes slightly under three weeks after Kenya joined the race to trace Covid-19 with genomics after posting the DNA of the virus circulating in the country.

Kenya's Ministry of Health received the results from the Kenya Medical Research Institute (Kemri) which analysed 28 sets of genomes, to see if the virus currently circulating within the community is the same as the strain first found in Wuhan. The results of the analyses are yet to shared publicly.

This data is usually stored in genome resource banks across the world.

A mutation is a tiny alteration that occurs to genetic materials like our DNA sequence, either due to mistakes when the DNA is copied or as the result of environmental factors. These changes can either be a bad or a good thing.

Unlike human beings, viruses are far sloppier, producing many mutants every time they infect a cell. While many of these mutations are not useful to the virus, disabling it rather than helping it proliferate, a few may be beneficial to the virus.

EIGHT STRAINS

Researchers tracking the current strains of the SARS-CoV-2 virus that cause the illness have identified at least eight strains of coronavirus around the globe.

While much is unknown about the virus, more than 2,000 genetic sequences of the virus have been submitted from labs to the open database, NextStrain, an open-source genome bank which shows it mutating on maps in real-time, according to the site.

“We are aware of the strains but we are yet to ascertain the particular strains circulating in Africa,” Dr Matshidiso Moeti, WHO Regional Director for Africa during a weekly media briefing.

Whereas it is true that the coronavirus has mutated over time, many scientists say there is no compelling evidence yet that the virus is evolving in a way that has made it more contagious or more deadly.