The novel coronavirus has acquired mutations capable of substantially changing the way it can cause disease, a new study in China has found, bringing up fears that vaccine development for Covid-19 could be hindered.
A team of researchers analysed the virus strains in 11 randomly chosen Covid-19 patients in China and identified 33 mutations, 19 of which were previously undiscovered, in the SARS-CoV-2 virus — the strain that causes Covid-19.
"Therefore, we provide direct evidence that the SARS-CoV-2 has acquired mutations capable of substantially changing its pathogenicity," the study, which is yet to be peer reviewed, concludes.
Chao Jiang from Zheijang University, the study's author, told Newsweek that "without the first SARS-CoV-2 strain to sequence, it is hard to determine how these mutations may have changed the virus' ability to affect humans," adding that "we can only say that these mutations probably can make the virus both stronger and weaker, depending on which one you are looking at."
But the repercussions of these findings go a long way as far as development of a vaccine is concerned.
"Depending on the nature of the mutations, some mutations would indeed weaken the vaccine effect if they are not taken into consideration. Since vaccines have different strategies that target different things in the viruses, it's difficult to make a blanket statement. However, there are numerous vaccine developments going on at the same time, so we remain optimistic."
Another scientist, Yong Gia, from Murdoch University in Perth, Australia told Newsweek until now scientists believed the novel coronavirus tends to mutate at a low rate, “suggesting that we may not need to worry too much about vaccine development”.
“The current study would make people rethink this. In fact, as the virus continues spreading and infecting a large population of people, the number of mutations would still accumulate to a high level, despite the low mutation rate,” he says.
According to an article by the New York Times, if "the virus mutates in a way that prevents antibodies from binding, it could make a lasting, universal vaccine difficult to create".
That's because the "antibodies, which the body produces in response to a vaccine or an infection, work by binding to specific spots on a virus – called antigens". But if mutations are able to change the shape of an antigen, it will weaken the effectiveness of the vaccine against the virus.
Last month, scientists in UK indicated that they were tracking the spread of the new coronavirus and watching for potential mutations by using gene sequencing to analyse the strains causing thousands of Covid-19 infections.
UK researchers planned to collect data from samples from infected patients in England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland.
"Genomic sequencing will help us understand Covid-19 and its spread. It can also help guide treatments in the future and see the impact of interventions," Patrick Vallance, UK government’s chief scientific adviser had said a statement.
"All viruses accumulate mutations over time, some faster than others. For Covid-19, this has only just begun — but this emerging variation can be tracked in detail," Paul Klenerman, a professor at Oxford University had said.
According to latest available figures, at least 183,820 people globally have died from Covid-19 and 2,645,092 have been infected by the novel coronavirus that causes it, following an outbreak that started in Wuhan, China, in early December last year.