Coronavirus: Scientists develop new tool to monitor virus mutations

Hellen Wadman

Scientists assessed the genome data of more than 1,20,000 samples of the novel coronavirus, and have developed a new tool to monitor mutations in the virus that may make it difficult to develop vaccines and drugs for COVID-19. According to the researchers, including those from the University of Melbourne in […]

Scientists assessed the genome data of more than 1,20,000 samples of the novel coronavirus, and have developed a new tool to monitor mutations in the virus that may make it difficult to develop vaccines and drugs for COVID-19. According to the researchers, including those from the University of Melbourne in Australia, ensuring treatments remain effective as the virus mutates is a huge challenge for scientists across the world.

They explained that mutations in an organism’s genetic material are natural ‘errors’ in the cell replication process that may give the virus new ‘powers’ of survival, infectivity, and virulence.

The new tool, dubbed COVID-3D and described in the journal Nature Genetics, harnesses genomic and protein information about the virus and its mutations to aid drug and vaccine development.

It contains information about all the protein structures that coincide with the novel coronavirus SARS-CoV-2’s genome, including every known genetic mutation and its resultant variant protein structure, the study noted.

“Although the SARS-CoV-2 virus is a relatively new pathogen, its ability to readily accumulate mutations across its genes was evident from the start of this pandemic,” said David Ascher, a co-author of the study from the University of Melbourne.

“In the context of therapeutic drug design and discovery, these mutations, and the patterns by which they accumulate within the virus’ protein structures, can affect the ability of vaccines and drugs to bind the virus, or to create a specific immune response against it,” Ascher said.

Due to this, the scientists said, it is important to predict how the virus may change over time.

They noted that several international universities and research institutions are already using COVID-3D in vaccine and treatment development.

In the research, the scientists analysed the genome sequencing data of over 1,20,000 SARS-CoV-2 samples from infected people globally to identify mutations within each of the virus’ proteins.

They tested and analysed the mutations’ effects on their protein structure using computer simulations.

Using this data, the researchers calculated all the biological effects every possible mutation within the genome might have.

The team also analysed changes in the related SARS virus which caused the 2002-03 pandemic, and the bat coronavirus RaTG13 to help researchers account for possible future mutations.

According to the scientists, SARS-CoV-2 is mutating slower than other viruses such as influenza, with about two new changes in its genome every month.

They said COVID-3D can help researchers recognise how mutations operate, and identify more effective vaccine and drug targets.

“It is only when you know how a mutation will affect the 3D shape of a protein, that you can predict if it will compromise your drug’s ability to bind,” Ascher said.

“As the global scientific and medical community gains better understanding of the biology behind the SARS-CoV2 infection and disease, this will be a powerful resource to predict problems with mutations and to guide the development of more effective therapies,” he added.

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