'Novel method to understand how coronavirus evolves developed'

LONDON: Researchers have developed a new method to analyse the genetic code of the novel coronavirus, an advance that can shed light on how the virus evolves, and help identify new clusters of the disease.

According to the scientists, including those from the University of York in the UK, analysing global data on the published genome sequences of the novel coronavirus can help accelerate our understanding of COVID-19.

In the study, published in the journal Transboundary and Emerging Diseases, the scientists developed a novel platform, originally used to analyse the human genome, to pinpoint differences among the thousands of genetic sequences of the novel coronavirus, SARS-CoV-2.

The researchers assessed the first 181 published genome sequences from the current COVID-19 outbreak to understand how changes in the virus could affect its behaviour and impact.

"This RNA virus is expected to evolve into a number of distinct clusters that share mutations, which is what we have confirmed and visualised," said S S Vasan, corresponding author of the study from the Australian federal government agency The Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO).

The scientists noted in the study that understanding these mutations may not affect the development and evaluation of COVID-19 vaccines, therapies, and diagnostics.

However, they said it is important information to monitor as preclinical and clinical studies progress.

"The more we know about this virus, the better armed we''ll be to fight it," said Larry Marshall, study co-author and the Chief Executive of CSIRO.

"This highly complex analysis of the genome sequence of the SARS-CoV-2 virus has already helped to determine which strains of the virus are suitable for testing vaccines underway at the Australian Centre for Disease Preparedness in Geelong -- the only high biocontainment facility of its kind in the Southern Hemisphere," Marshall said.

According to Denis Bauer, another co-author of the study from CSIRO, as the virus evolves, this genetic blueprint becomes increasingly important since it holds instructions about the behaviour of the virus and what kind of disease it can cause.

"Globally there is now a huge amount of individual virus sequences," said Bauer, who is also Honorary Associate Professor at Macquarie University in Australia.

"Assessing the evolutionary distance between these data points and visualising it helps researchers find out about the different strains of the virus - including where they came from and how they continue to evolve," Bauer said.

Accordingly to the scientists, the new data visualisation platform highlights the evolving genetic mutations of the virus as it continues to change and adapt to new environments.

"The more informed we are about the genetic differences and their likely consequences on the progression of the disease, the better we can tackle the disease with diagnostics and treatments," Bauer said.


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