A study conducted by a team at UCL identified potential drug and vaccine targets for SARS-CoV-2. The results of the study were published in Infection, Genetics and Evolution and revealed nearly 200 recurrent genetic mutations in the virus, indicating how it may be adapting and evolving to human hosts.
To do this, they analysed the virus genomes from over 7,500 people infected with COVID-19 from around the globe. Then identified 198 mutations that appear to have independently occurred more than once.
The mutations that were identified were not evenly distributed across the viral genome – some parts of the genome had very few mutations. The researchers say that the invariant parts of the virus could be better targets for drug and vaccine development.
Co-author of the study, Professor Francois Balloux from UCL Genetics institute said; “All viruses naturally mutate. Mutations in themselves are not a bad thing and there is nothing to suggest SARS-CoV-2 is mutating faster or slower than expected. So far we cannot say whether SARS-CoV-2 is becoming more or less lethal and contagious. A major challenge to defeating viruses is that a vaccine or drug might no longer be effective if the virus has mutated. If we focus our efforts on parts of the virus that are less likely to mutate, we have a better chance of developing drugs that will be effective in the long run”.
Adding to this, co-author Dr Lucy van Dorp added “There are still very few genetic differences or mutations between viruses… we need to continue to monitor these as more genomes become available and conduct research to understand exactly what they do”.
Current evidence shows that the diversity of the samples of coronavirus strains in the UK is equivalent to what is seen across the rest of the world, indicating the virus entered the UK multiple times independently, rather than by one initial case.
The team have also developed an interactive, open-source application so researchers can review the virus genomes and apply similar approaches to understand the viral evolution.
Dr van Dorp went on to explain how invaluable it has been to be able to analyse many virus genomes during the first few months of the pandemic has been to drug development efforts, adding “We are all benefiting from a tremendous effort by hundreds of researchers globally who have been sequencing virus genomes and making them available online”.