COVID-19 | The SARS-CoV-2 is mutating, say scientists

We’re aiming at getting a better understanding of the virus, they say.

Updated - December 03, 2021 06:54 am IST

Published - March 03, 2020 06:32 pm IST - AHMEDABAD

A large crowd wearing masks commutes through Shinagawa Station in Tokyo.

A large crowd wearing masks commutes through Shinagawa Station in Tokyo.

Even as the world is grappling to contain the COVID-19 epidemic spreading like a wildfireacross the world with more than 3,000 deaths and over 90,000 cases across 76 countries , senior scientists at Australia’s national science agency, the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO), have said the virus dubbed SARS-CoV-2 is mutating.

A top scientist at CSIRO, Professor S.S. Vasan, who leads the CSIRO Dangerous Pathogens and the virus preclinical research has said: “We have analysed the 115 published genome sequences from the current COVID-19 outbreak to understand how changes in the virus affect its behaviour and impact.”


“Some of these ‘errors’ in the virus known as ‘mutations’ may be significant for the development and evaluation of new diagnostics, drugs and vaccines, so it is very important for us to understand it. We are also investigating the physical and molecular characterisation of this virus to find differences and similarities with other known coronaviruses,” he said.

The Hindu Group’s Business Line revealed on February 3 that the global Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI), backed by the Indian government’s Department of Biotechnology, is working with the CSIRO to establish animal models to test vaccine candidates. It seems that this research has succeeded in the initial phase.

According to Prof. Vasan, CSIRO is in the process of testing new potential vaccines for the epidemic which has emerged as the single biggest threat to the world economy amidst plummeting stock markets as the virus is marching to new geographies.


“We’ve grown the virus for our research and have also reconfirmed the genomic sequence published by the Peter Doherty Institute. We have got promising results with our initial susceptibility studies and are in the process of conducting natural disease progression studies,” he said.

“Next we’re aiming to get a better understanding of the virus, so CSIRO can begin testing new potential vaccines and therapeutics being developed for efficacy.”


Associate Professor Denis Bauer, who leads the CSIRO Transformational Bioinformatics Group, has said: “Finding the difference amongst 30,000 letters of the viral genome is not an easy task, akin to finding a needle in a haystack. The CSIRO has adapted bioinformatics algorithms, first developed for the human genome, to tackle the problem efficiently.”

“However, this only gives us a picture of the general genomic variability rather than the individual functional consequences. For example, it is very likely that disease severity is a combination of personal predispositions as well as viral properties,” she said.

The CSIRO team is calling on the international community to share more genomic sequences of the virus alongside de-identified information about clinical symptoms and co-morbidities. This will help monitor the changes and form a better understanding of how important genetic differences are to the disease’s progression, potentially leading to better diagnostics and treatment, they have said in a news release.

The COVID-19 is already estimated by the Asian Development Bank to result in $100 billion in global economic losses based on a comparison with the 2003 SARS outbreak.

According to Prof. Vasan, potential loss of tourism revenues due to a severe epidemic outbreak could be substantial.

Experts and scientists believe that there are over 500 coronaviruses identified in bats, but their true number may be 10 times higher, according to the WHO.

Due to a combination of factors, they can jump from their natural host (usually bats but not always) to humans via intermediate host, but not all human coronaviruses cause severe disease.

For instance, HCoV-NL63 and HCoV-229E caused only mild symptoms, whereas SARS-CoV, MERS-CoV and the current SARS-CoV-2 are associated with relatively severe symptoms.

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