The pathogen colloquially referred to as the novel coronavirus (or more accurately, SARS-CoV-2) appears to be mutating and adapting to humans, The Guardian reports. Those mutations could thwart efforts to develop a vaccine against the virus.
Martin Hibberd, professor of emerging infectious diseases at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, says that his team has documented multiple observations of the mutations appearing in multiple labs across the world.
Studying the genetic structure of 5,349 coronavirus genomes, researchers around the world observed two mutations. One was present in 788 virions around the world, the other in 32.
Specifically, the mutations change the physiological structure of the "spike protein," one of the features of the virus that makes it so easy to spread -- such that it traveled all the way across the world in a matter of months. That spike protein allows it to bind more easily to human cells than other viruses in the same family.
So far, the mutations are comparatively rare. However, the fact that the pathogen is mutating causes concern for scientists.
"This is exactly what we need to look out for," Hibberd said.
So far, it's unclear if either or both of the mutations make the mutated pathogen more transmissible or more deadly, or indeed, if they'll have any effect on the pandemic or individual patients at all -- at least directly.
Indirectly, however, the fact that the virus appears to be mutating could prove catastrophic, as the mutations could thwart the development of a vaccine, Hibberd says.
"People are making vaccines and other therapies against this spike protein because it seems a very good target. We need to keep an eye on it and make sure that any mutations don't invalidate any of these approaches."
If the scientific community develops a vaccine that proves effective only on certain strains of the virus, all of that work will have been for nothing, Hibberd says.
"Even if these mutations are not important for vaccines, other mutations might be and we need to maintain our surveillance so we are not caught out by deploying a vaccine that only works against some strains," he says.
This is not the first time that the prospect of the coronavirus mutating has caught the attention of scientists. Last week, as reported at the time by The Inquisitr, a new study was published that suggested that the virus is indeed mutating, albeit to become weaker, not stronger.